Despite deploying six-axis robots in automotive production as early as the 1960s, America has an unusual relationship with automation. The technology is still largely seen as a threat to American jobs.

Made in America - Automating for Growth
Made in America - Automating for Growth

Jonathan Wilkins, Marketing Director | EU Automation

Manufacturing jobs have increased by 36,000 since President Trump’s election — that’s according to figures released by the White House. As a focal point for several political campaigns, ‘Made in America’ has become a recurring strapline, promoting the use of American products to protect jobs in manufacturing. However, the nation’s reluctance to embrace industrial technologies could be damaging its potential for growth.    

Despite deploying six-axis robots in automotive production as early as the 1960s, America has an unusual relationship with automation. The technology is still largely seen as a threat to American jobs, with countless media stories, reports and industry studies damning the use of automation as the end of human employment. 

In fact, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, over 73 million American jobs could be at risk of automation before 2030. This may sound threatening, but this statistic doesn’t quite tell the full story and this mis-informed idea is holding back the ‘Made in America’ drive. 

Automation has long been used to displace intensive labor. As recently as the 19th century, over 80 per cent of American jobs were based on agricultural farming. Today, just two per cent of Americans work in this field. Modernization of agriculture certainly didn’t destroy the US economy, nor did it leave the nation jobless. 

Looking to modern manufacturing, the situation is similar. Increasing use of robots and automation will admittedly displace some roles in the industry, but adopting this technology is essential for enabling further growth. At this stage, manufacturers that do not embrace automation risk stagnating their progress, and contribution to US manufacturing growth.

Amazon has long been a vocal advocate of using automation to facilitate growth. During a three-year transformation project, the company increased the number of robots in warehousing from 1,400 to 45,000. During this period, the rate in which the company hired employees did not decrease. In fact, deployment of these robots created this increased capacity and in turn, more vacancies. 

Globally, competing nations are already widely using automation to improve production. China, as an example, saw the largest global growth in demand for industrial robots in 2018, with robot deployment growing by 58 per cent. To compete with nations of this size, US manufacturers must take a similar approach to build upon the current political drive for American manufacturing. 

Automation and robots will be responsible for changing the roles of manufacturing employees, but it certainly won’t replace them. Increased use of this technology simply forces a shift from manually intensive labor, to jobs that require human skills. 

Unlike human employees, automation cannot negotiate, persuade or generate new ideas. Equally, these machines cannot provide the emotional intelligence, creativity or intuition required to make complex decisions on the factory floor. That’s not to mention the advanced engineering skills required to build, program and maintain this machinery once it has been integrated. 

American manufacturing may be on the rise, and according to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) quarterly outlook survey, 95 per cent of manufacturers now have a positive outlook for their companies. However, without automating for growth, the nation cannot expect to surpass its global competition.

 

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The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of ManufacturingTomorrow

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