Automation and digitization were already spreading to more factory floors and job sites. Then the pandemic hit.
“It was trial by fire as we went through Covid,” said Mark Bulanda, executive president of automation solutions for Emerson, a manufacturer of systems that automate factory processes.
“Not because of Covid, but because the exodus of people forced the adoption of tech.”
The latest jobs report shows the manufacturing sector grew at its fastest level since the pandemic began, jumping by 50,000 positions. However, there are still about half a million fewer employed manufacturing workers than there were a year ago. The question is how many of those jobs will come back — and how many have been permanently disrupted by digital processes.
Since the pandemic hit, food manufacturers ramped up their automation, allowing facilities to maintain output while social distancing. Factories digitized controls on their machines so they could be remotely operated by workers working from home or another location. New sensors were installed that can flag, or predict, failures, allowing teams of inspectors operating on a schedule to be reduced to an as-needed maintenance crew.
Now, manufacturers are clamoring for even more automated machines so they can cope with spiking demand for their products amid a global recovery and a skilled labor shortage.
Rockwell Automation, a provider of industrial automation solutions, said growth is up 6 percent for the fiscal year and saw sharply increased orders in November and December.
Orders for automated machines are up 30 percent at Eastman Machine Company, a Buffalo, New York-based manufacturer that produces machines that cut specialty materials like carbon fiber and fiberglass, increasingly in demand for cars, aerospace and wind turbines. The backlog for a new device extends to June, their longest in company history.
“When you automate systems, you get greater accuracy,” said CEO Robert Stevenson. “Repeatability is increased. It’s hard to find people who can do that.”
During the pandemic, his own production lines were affected. State-mandated capacity restraints meant he had to temporarily lay off half his staff. Work stations were distanced and assembly was broken into stages so that only one worker was working on a part at a time. He’s since been able to hire them all back.
Now, his biggest issues are booking container ships to send his product to customers amid a global shipping snarl, and finding workers with technical skills and aptitude.
“People need to be trained,” he said. “It’s not a robot, you need operators.”
Yet it’s estimated every one automated device replaces six human workers, according to Daron Acemoglu, an MIT professor of economics who studies the effects on labor. While about three of the displaced workers will find other jobs, the other workers "withdraw from the labor force," he said, with the greatest labor force participation happening among prime age males without college degrees.
Robots could replace as many as 2 million more workers in manufacturing by 2025, Acemoglu found, contributing to wage inequality, a slowdown in labor demand, and an even higher share of GDP going to the owners of capital than labor.
"Typically, automation tends to have a range of negative effects on workers, but then it is counterbalanced by other technological changes that create opportunities," Acemoglu said.
But this time around, those displaced workers are going into lower-skilled and lower pay occupations, such as factory workers who are now security guards or warehouse workers, unless they're able to upgrade their education into a new technical job, or engineering or management, he said, placing more burden on the worker to adapt.
"We're not training workers for the new types of jobs that may exist," Acemoglu said. "We have failed to create the requisite technologies to generate enough opportunities for these workers."
“The high upfront cost for developing and implementing machines in factories has been compensated by the pandemic discouraging human work."
“The high upfront cost for developing and implementing machines in factories has been compensated by the pandemic discouraging human work,” Hyejin Youn, assistant professor of management and organization at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, wrote in an email.
“Once the level of development and implementation and production goes beyond the threshold to get into the… learning curve, the cost will decrease, [making machines] cheaper than human workers,” she wrote. Lower-skilled workers are the most vulnerable to automation, she said.
But manufacturers of automated products say these effects, far from being anti-labor, can free up workers to be redeployed elsewhere, put to better use, or eventually allow for more workers to be hired.
“The most competitive industrial enterprise combines advanced tech with a workforce comfortable with interacting with that tech and is valued for uniquely human attributes like decision-making skills,” said Blake Moret, chairman and CEO of Rockwell Automation.
“If you combine a skilled and engaged workforce with advanced tech, you make a more successful company that can do more, hire more people, and profitably engage in new lines of business,” he said. “It’s a beneficial spiral.”
Boston Dynamics, known for its viral videos of spindly legged robot dogs and backflipping humanoid bots this year unveiled Stretch, its first purpose-built robot for warehouse automation. It has suction grippers built onto an arm that can grab boxes and move them onto a pallet or conveyor belt. It can lift up to 50 pounds and move 800 boxes an hour and can be quickly deployed without needing much additional infrastructure.
For years the warehousing industry has known that its growth was going to run into labor shortages, said Brian Nachtigall, Boston Dynamics' director of business development for warehouse automation.
“What happened in the past year was the pandemic,” he said. “A flashlight really shined on this issue for a lot of people.”
Nachtigall said he sees Stretch as a tool that warehouse workers will use, rather than an outright replacement for them. Workers will still need to check in trucks, open their doors, and enable a robot, or several, to unload the trucks. The company says a few customers will deploy Stretch in early 2022, but declined to say which.
“Some people talk about a ‘lights-out’ warehouse,” he said, describing a warehouse running completely on automation that would not need any humans — or lights.
“That’s probably pretty far off. There’s going to be people managing robots for quite some time in the future.”