The New Era of Automation is Here

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The New Era of Automation is Here

With unemployment in the U.S. at 50-year lows, the conversation about factory automation has shifted from industrial robots taking jobs to robots solving labor shortages.  Instead of fearing robots, factory workers are increasingly welcoming them as they take on repetitive or backbreaking tasks, freeing workers to do higher-value jobs.

It’s time to put-to-bed the notion that robots take jobs, at least in the OECD countries.  Instead we need to recognize that it’s automation that is enabling a resurgence of jobs in the U.S., the EU, South Korea and Japan.  Today, the problem is that companies are struggling to find people to fill the jobs that they have open in the manufacturing space.  And the same thing is happening in many parts of the service economy.

Over the last 10 years, manufacturing jobs in the U.S. rose even as industrial robots proliferated.  In May 2019, the number of workers in manufacturing jobs stood at 12.84 million up 1.5% from a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the U.S. in June 2019 was 3.7%, a level last seen in 1969.  With low unemployment, workers today have more choices for where they'd like to earn a living.  That obviously means that companies have to pay higher wages, improve working conditions, or both.  And since people can be pickier about what jobs they do, that often means letting machines do the less desirable tasks.

Consider a few examples.

Really dull jobs, like putting small boxes into bigger boxes for eight hours a day aren’t much fun.  If companies can automate jobs like that, it allows a person to occupy a better role and do something more productive."

A recent Investors Business Daily article cites a company which added a robot for soldering circuit boards, which is a mind-numbingly dull job. Because a worker no longer has to do that work, he can focus on jobs like programming the robot, handling shipping and receiving, and doing information technology tasks at the plant.

As the employee explained to IBD, “The soldering work is repetitive and boring.  It's the same move over and over...

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