U.S. manufacturing seemingly isn’t in a good position. According to data published by The U.S. Federal Reserve, factory production slumped through most of 2019’s first half, recovering slightly in May and June. Reports by the Institute for Supply Management echoed a similar sentiment, stating that U.S. factories had declined in multiple areas, including employment, orders, production, and deliveries.
The prevailing narrative of the media is that nothing can stop the ongoing decline of manufacturing. However, the industry’s savior may lie in one of its supposed antagonists – automation.
America has an unusual relationship with manufacturing technology. While the first 6-axis robots were introduced to automotive production lines in the 1960s, narratives since then have often focused on the threat technology poses to employment rather than the productivity advantages and new job roles it can bring. Automation is often viewed as manufacturing’s inevitable downfall, threatening workers’ jobs.
There’s no denying that automation has displaced some American jobs. However, that’s not to say the industry is failing, nor does it mean jobs in U.S. manufacturing are impossible to find. Work in the sector certainly still exists, just not the same positions that previous generations held.
Assembly applications offer an ideal example. Manufacturers today use conveyors, machine-vision systems, and pick-and-place equipment to assemble products automatically. As a result, the number of assembly jobs has been steadily declining and is predicted to fall 14% by 2026 according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, not all factory job roles have this bleak future. Software development, for instance, was almost entirely absent from past manufacturing facilities. Today, developers play a critical role in deploying automation, programming machinery, and maintaining control software. Vacancies in software are predicted to rise 24% by 2026, surpassing the number of assembly jobs lost and creating new opportunities.
During the digital transformation of factories, workers with technical skill sets will become incredibly valuable. For instance, facilities conducting incremental automation deployments will require staff to regularly install and perform maintenance on industrial parts.
Automation is not the detriment it is often depicted to be. Thankfully, most manufacturers see its value and aren’t rooting for its defeat. The U.S. remains one of the world’s most lucrative markets for manufacturing, but the sector requires an injection of optimism about automation and its potential to create jobs.