How Have Robotics & Automation Changed the Manufacturing Employment Landscape?

robotics and manufacturing employment

Editor’s Note: This guest blog from Cisco-Eagle, Cisco-Eagle, Inc., a provider of integrated material handling and storage systems for industrial operations, is the first post in which we will have a few blog posts on robotics, jobs, and how millennials figure into the future of manufacturing. This post is chock full of great statistics and other great articles to discover around these subjects. We hope you enjoy!

Robotics & Automation in the Manufacturing Employment Landscape

According to the most recent employment statistics highlights from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), manufacturing employment has changed very little in recent months. The one-month diffusion index, which measures the dispersion of employment change in manufacturing, fell from 51.9 in April to 48.8 in May (a value below 50 indicates that more manufacturing industries are losing jobs than adding).

A variety of factors may help to explain the decrease in manufacturing jobs (stabilizing economy, increase in production of goods, aging population, etc.). But one of the biggest centers around technological innovations (automation, robotics, Internet of Things, etc.) increasingly being used to drive more efficient warehouse and assembly operations.

A recent Pew Research Center survey shows roughly half (48%) of industry experts think robotic advancements will displace a significant number of blue and white collar jobs by 2025, while the other 52% predict these innovations will result in new skills and industries.

As noted by Adam Robinson in a post on the reasons there are fewer manufacturing jobs today, this “tech-savvy change in manufacturing” has led to a Catch 22 of sorts:

“The workers needed in manufacturing must [now] have a highly-developed set of skills to work in such technological environments. As a result, a worker may need a degree or other form of training beyond simple manufacturing, such as engineering, computer-electronics, or robotics.”

Let’s take a closer look at what this technological shift in manufacturing means for employees, both now and in the future:

Promote workplace efficiency & employee creativity

Let’s face it: Humans will never be able to compete with the productivity and efficiency provided by machines. Robots offer something humans can’t deliver: accuracy, incredible consistency and unlimited performance. They perform the exact same motions millions of times without variation, complaint, or error. What’s more, they don’t need sick days or take vacations.

While many fear technological advancements are automating jobs away, the opposite is true. Automating repetitive, mundane, or dangerous work frees up employees to pursue jobs that require imagination, adaptability, and decision-making skills. In that sense, robots ultimately drive efficiency – not replace workers.

On the other hand, increased automation demands a certain skill set and educational training for employees to be able to operate a connected, technologically advanced manufacturing facility. Jennifer McNelly, president of The Manufacturing Institute, argues that manufacturers need to do more to develop their talent pool. “They can no longer wait for an educated and training next generation of manufacturing talent,” she says.

Drive Reshoring

Roughly 1.2 million industrial robots are expected to be deployed by the year 2025, according to Boston Consulting Group (BCG) research. While 10% of today’s manufacturing functions are automated, BCG predicts this number will rise to 25% as robotic vision sensors and gripping systems improve.

But what does this mean for manufacturing employment?

As noted in an Apple Rubber blog on the impact of robotics in manufacturing, increasing the use of robots will help to create jobs as well as keep manufacturing work in the U.S. “We are spending hundreds of billions of dollars doing this kind of work in China,” says Rodney Brooks, co-founder of Rethink Robots, in the article. “We want companies to spend that here, in a way that lets American workers be more productive.”

Increase employee safety

Each year, manufacturers lose valuable manpower to slips, falls, and other accidents that cause employees to miss work and cost companies hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers’ compensation claims. In fact, BLS data reports slightly more than 3.0 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses occurred in 2013, resulting in an incidence rate of 3.3 cases per 100 equivalent full-time workers.

But, with robots and automated systems replacing workers in many positions, another significant benefit emerges: improved employee safety.

As noted in a World Economic Forum article on the top emerging technologies in 2015, “Robots are ideal for tasks that are too dangerous for humans to undertake, and can work 24 hours a day at a lower cost than human workers.”

Interestingly enough, the article notes that new-generation robotic machines are likely to collaborate with humans rather than replace them. And, with a clear correlation between employee health and workplace engagement, the likely result of such a collaboration is more fulfilled employees who can focus on more challenging work instead of safety concerns around the warehouse.

Final Thoughts

With market research showing Millennial workers will comprise 75% of the manufacturing workforce by the year 2025, the overall impact of technological advancements on the manufacturing employment landscape remains to be seen.

But this much is clear: From automation and robotics to computer-controlled systems, the manufacturing environment looks much different today than it did in years past. How does your company view the impact of this technological shift in manufacturing?  What does it mean for your employees?

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Scott Stone

Scott Stone

Advertising and E-Business Manager at Cisco-Eagle
This article was contributed by Scott Stone of Cisco-Eagle, Inc., a provider of integrated material handling and storage systems for industrial operations. Scott has over 23 years of experience in industrial operations.
Scott Stone


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There are 2 comments .

Sandy Montalbano

A debate rages over further automation’s impact on U.S. manufacturing employment. The Reshoring Initiative sees three possible scenarios:

Bad: We do not automate. The trade deficit worsens, employment drops and our real wages fall to stay partially competitive.

Better: We do automate. The trade deficit stays constant, employment drops slowly, maybe 1%/year, to the extent that productivity increases exceed demand growth.

Best: Same as Better but we eliminate the trade deficit by informed reshoring and Foreign Direct Investment. Our trade deficit of about $700 billion/year represents about 30% of our current manufacturing output. Balancing the trade deficit would prevent 1% annual employment declines for about 25 years while we retrained our workforce and shifted from an excess reliance on consumption to a good balance, or, ideally, a trade surplus such as Germany’s.

The U.S. has suffered for decades with a huge trade deficit that now is about 4X the world’s next largest. Let’s convert this liability into an asset. The winning strategy is balancing the trade deficit with a strong investment in automation and skills training and increased corporate use of Total Cost for sourcing and plant siting decisions. A competitive USD and corporate tax rates would accelerate the process.

The Reshoring Initiative Can Help
In order to help companies decide objectively to reshore manufacturing back to the U.S. or offshore, the not-for-profit Reshoring Initiative’s free Total Cost of Ownership Estimator can help corporations calculate the real P&L impact of reshoring or offshoring.

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