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  • Writer's pictureOlivia Liu

Observation : Automation and Human Workers: A Complex Relationship

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Although traditionally depicted as an adversary to human labor, automation can have a surprisingly positive impact on the manufacturing workforce.

Automation vs. Labor

Automated technologies are attractive because they replace labor-intensive, often repetitive steps in manufacturing processes with machines that yield consistent performance and around-the-clock operation, freeing factories of labor disputes lowering production costs, and increasing productivity. However, automation has pushed unskilled manufacturing workers out of their jobs. The simultaneous economic gain and human suffering brought on by automation make its implementation a hot topic of debate. At the Automate Show 2022, an employee of a major industrial equipment company shared the dilemma he experienced while working on a project to revamp a client’s manual production line. He witnessed a 70-year-old line worker lose her job loading and unloading equipment parts because of the automated technology he helped implement.

Automation’s Surprising Effect

Although the media often write that automation threatens the jobs of human workers, this is an oversimplified portrayal of the automation issue.

Automation eliminates low-wage, unskilled jobs but simultaneously creates other high-skill jobs at various levels of the manufacturing sector.

“While some of these robots have replaced workers on the assembly lines,” Nico Thomas (NIST) acknowledges, “machinists, advanced welders, different types of technicians [are needed] to maintain those machines and perform new tasks.”

The beauty of automated technologies is that their capabilities constantly evolve, extending the need for new jobs indefinitely. Sometime in the future, countless jobs will be created to accommodate technologies that are still being developed. Although many rural and small manufacturers hesitate to implement employee workforce training due to the investment’s long return-on-investment period, they should consider that automated technologies, which require a steady supply of upskilled workers, will remain topical for an even greater period of time.

Although the media often write that automation threatens the jobs of human workers, this is an oversimplified portrayal of the automation issue.

If employers commit to retaining their current workers by investing in workforce training, they enable workers to expand their skill sets with the growing capabilities of technology. As manufacturing jobs increasingly function to maintain technology, the use of collaborative robots has risen. Collaborative robots, also known as cobots, are automated machinery that requires close human surveillance and human input to operate. At the Automate 2022 Show, FANUC exhibited a cobot that neatly sorted lip balm cans into a plastic organizer. The booth representative showed me the digital application that a human worker would use to control the robot, which used basic block coding to assemble programs for the cobot to follow in an effort to accommodate less skilled entry-level employees. The FANUC representative explained that each time the co-bot’s functions became more complex, the worker, already familiar with all previous capabilities of the application, could easily pick up a few new skills for using the application to execute those new functions.

When manufacturers encourage their workers to view automation as an opportunity for knowledge expansion and career mobility, the productivity of their factories and the stability of their workforces increase. When workers learn with technology in the way mentioned by the FANUC representative, they essentially receive on-the-job training. Thus, when corporations introduce new technologies to their production processes, they simultaneously become more efficient and keep employees engaged with their work, increasing the chance that those employees will remain at the job for longer.

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