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Do Manufacturing Workers Benefit from Automation?

Advanced manufacturing technologies promise better jobs. Is it time to rejoice?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is upon us, and it will transform work as we know it. This article delves into the benefits that automation could bring to deskless workers: safer jobs, higher pay, more opportunities for advancement, and so on. It is undeniable that automated technologies and artificial intelligence have the potential to enrich manufacturing jobs. However, their implementation will determine how workers are actually impacted.

Video Spotlight: Future of Manufacturing | Global Lighthouse Network (January 19, 2020, World Economic Forum)

This post is based on the Forbes article, How Manufacturing Technology Can Benefit Workers, by D. Lovich, April 19, 2023, and the YouTube video in the Spotlight. Image source: Westend61/Getty Images.

Discussion Questions:

1. According to the article and the video, what are the pros and cons of automated manufacturing technologies for both companies and deskless workers?

Guidance: According to the article, manufacturing technologies offer companies: 1) higher profits through lower labor costs and higher productivity, and 2) higher predictability and responsiveness with improved analytics. In the video, increased mobility, lower waste, improved maintenance, faster product introductions, higher efficiency, lower impact on the environment, and opportunities for new partnerships are listed as additional benefits.

For employees, the advantages mentioned in the article include remote work, flexible or even optimized shift schedules with backup workforce, higher-value work, higher wages, reduced health and safety risks, and possibly higher employment opportunities through company growth. The video features the elimination of repetitive tasks as an added bonus.

The primary disadvantages for workers are stagnant wages, lost jobs, and the need to upskill constantly.

For companies, the cons involve substantial and risky investments in the new technologies, higher training costs, and increased social and environmental responsibility.

2. Do you agree with the author that new technologies will make it more likely for deskless employees to work remotely for higher wages? Why or why not?

Guidance: The article mentions the possibility of remote work for supervisors, and in the future, for other shop-floor workers who would be able to run multiple machines digitally from a remote location. Although future possibilities cannot be dismissed, there are several obstacles to consider. First, the current trend for companies to bring back remote tech workers to the office in order to increase productivity and foster creative collaboration contradicts the assumption that remote work is a panacea. Second, the enhanced technological capabilities would still result in drastic workforce reductions, which would likely meet resistance. In fact, the exponential advances in AI and robotics may involve the disappearance of these jobs altogether. Third, some jobs are too cheap to justify automation. Fourth, it is unlikely that retired supervisors could fill in as jobs are expected to evolve at a rapid pace. Finally, the positive impact of automated manufacturing technology described in the article may take a long time to materialize. Decades ago, technology was supposed to usher in a paperless work environment. What happened?

3. Use ChatGPT to “identify ways to upskill the manufacturing workforce.” Are the recommendations realistic? Explain.

Guidance: These are the suggestions generated by ChatGPT:

There are several ways to upskill the manufacturing workforce to enhance their knowledge, skills, and productivity. Here are some strategies and approaches:

    1. Training and Development Programs: Implement comprehensive training programs to upgrade employees’ skills. This can include technical training on advanced manufacturing techniques, equipment operation, quality control, and safety protocols. Soft skills training, such as communication, problem-solving, and teamwork, is also crucial.
    2. Cross-Training Opportunities: Encourage employees to gain experience in multiple areas of the manufacturing process. Cross-training enables workers to develop a broader skill set, enhances their versatility, and promotes a better understanding of the entire production system.
    3. Apprenticeship Programs: Establish apprenticeship programs to provide hands-on training and mentorship opportunities. This approach allows new or less experienced workers to learn from skilled professionals, acquiring practical skills and industry knowledge.
    4. Collaboration with Educational Institutions: Forge partnerships with local technical schools, community colleges, and universities. This collaboration can lead to the development of specialized manufacturing courses, certifications, or degree programs tailored to the industry’s needs.
    5. Continuous Learning Initiatives: Promote a culture of lifelong learning by encouraging employees to pursue further education, certifications, or attend workshops and conferences relevant to their roles. Provide resources and incentives to support their professional development.
    6. Technology Integration: Invest in advanced manufacturing technologies and machinery. Provide employees with training and support to effectively utilize these technologies, optimizing their productivity and expanding their skill set in working with automated systems, robotics, data analysis, and other emerging technologies.
    7. Leadership Development: Identify potential leaders within the workforce and provide them with leadership development programs. These programs can help cultivate essential managerial skills, fostering a pipeline of capable leaders who can drive continuous improvement and effectively manage teams.
    8. Mentoring and Coaching: Implement mentoring programs that pair experienced employees with less experienced ones. Mentors can provide guidance, share knowledge, and offer career advice, helping mentees enhance their skills and confidence.
    9. Performance Feedback and Recognition: Establish a performance feedback system that provides constructive feedback to employees, helping them identify areas for improvement and growth. Recognize and reward achievements to motivate and retain skilled workers.
    10. Industry Partnerships: Collaborate with industry associations and trade organizations to access resources, best practices, and training materials specific to the manufacturing sector. Participate in industry conferences and events to stay updated on the latest advancements.

Remember, the key to successful upskilling is to create a supportive environment that encourages continuous learning, provides adequate resources, and recognizes the value of a skilled workforce.

In principle, all these recommendations are excellent. They focus on increased opportunities for education, continuous learning, and rewards. Unfortunately, their implementation is costly, and it may be easier for companies to increase automation while trimming their workforce. Yet, training budgets have increased lately, especially in manufacturing. Whether this trend continues during an economic downturn remains to be seen.

The idea that anyone can learn the required skills, or is willing to do so, at a pace dictated by technological developments may be overly optimistic. Difficult material is learned slowly and forgotten rapidly when continuous practice is lacking. This limits the potential of cross training for certain jobs and raises concerns that companies may not be able to sustain long and costly education programs while committing to investments in technologies with a very short life cycle.

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