From robots to 3D printing, transformation in manufacturing has lead to efficiencies, and also worries over future employment
- Robots, 3D printing, and drones are features of the new manufacturing world-order, which even a few years ago seemed experimental.
- Financing these innovations can sometimes be challenging, however, as margins in manufacturing tend to be thin.
- Innovation does cause concern over lost employment opportunities. Companies are looking at ways to reskill workers for a more automated future.
- 100 People Transforming Business is an annual list and series highlighting those across industries who are changing the way the world does business. Check out the full list for 2020.
The manufacturing industry is in the midst of a major shift to adopt next-generation technologies. "Digital twins" of aircraft and other assets enable companies to monitor parts for maintenance well before they break down, saving valuable time and money. Robots now routinely work alongside humans on factory floors handling mundane tasks, like transporting pallets.
Drones will soon start flying around large warehouses to help map out inventory and oversee other operations. And the prototypes organizations use to test out products before moving to large-scale production can now be 3D printed, an advancement that not only speeds the process up but enables more remote operations given that the files can be used anywhere a printer is available.
All this comes as the manufacturing industry in the US erodes. The country has shed hundreds of thousands of factory jobs in the past few years despite the Trump administration's efforts to turn the tide. Alongside renegotiating new trade deals with Mexico, Canada, China, and other countries, President Trump even floated the potential for tax breaks for those who bring jobs to the US from China.
"It's been frustrating for me to see what's happened in the developed world relative to their manufacturing base," Ellen Kullman, the former CEO of DuPont and current CEO of 3D printing startup Carbon, told Business Insider.
The digital revolution could usher in a new era for manufacturers, one that's not predicated on blue-collar line workers but highly skilled technologists.
But while the sector is eagerly embracing digital tools, it's not at the pace of other industries like finance or retail. For one, margins in manufacturing tend to be much lower, which results in less available funding for tech upgrades.
"We have seen productivity decline in the industrial sector for years," said Colin Paris, chief technology officer at GE Digital. "Unless there's a problem, the finances don't suggest that you will invest the level of money you need to actually do these transformations."
And those financial pressures could be exacerbated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. With the airline industry in turmoil, for example, fewer aircraft may need to undergo maintenance, and carriers are likely to delay or halt investments in new tech.
Innovation charging ahead
It hasn't stopped the pace of innovation. Startups like Carbon and Fetch Robotics are pioneering the future of the industry. And in some instances, those systems are already well established. Amazon, for example, has been using robots successfully in its warehouse for years.
That's a major change from even just a few years ago when the technology was viewed as transformative but still experimental. Kiva Systems cofounder Raffaello D'Andrea, for example, sold the robotics firm to Amazon in 2012 for $775 million when adoption of the machines was still in its infancy.
"Back then, it was science fiction to think that you could have a thousand mobile robots running around 24-7," he told Business Insider. "Now, of course, people are wanting to leverage it for not just distribution but for manufacturing."
Now D'Andrea is trying to pioneer the use of drones within warehouses with Verity Studios. The company does visual performances for artists like Metallica and Celine Dion and is expanding to work with enterprises.
Training the workforce
But as new technology becomes more ubiquitous among manufacturers, employee advocates worry the push could displace thousands of jobs.
"We have to have a worker voice upstream in the innovation process of a company," said Liz Shuler, secretary-treasurer at labor union American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. "Do we want to simply make money or do we want to have a better society? If we want to have a better society then we have to have everyone at the table."
Increasingly, companies are trying to upskill their workers to be able to effectively use advanced tech like artificial intelligence, opening up the opportunity to move low-wage employees to higher-paying positions. Amazon, Microsoft, and others are investing billions of dollars on retraining initiatives.
Others are trying to find ways to skill up employees who may not have four-year college degrees. Toyota also has run an apprenticeship program for decades that allows participants to work while going to school to earn an associate degree.
And the AFL-CIO is one organization trying to push the envelope. It recently renegotiated a labor contract with Marriott to include a notification period for any operational changes that could affect a person's job as well as funding for training workers whose jobs could be displaced by tech.
"We don't bury our head in the sand and say we can't embrace technology," Shuler said. "We have an opportunity to actually be proactive here. If you are going to make those investments, the company must think through carefully how those adjustments are made."
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