Labor and Automation: Not a simple switch
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Technology may be enticing and a solution to some labor woes. However, industry companies are faced with many challenges when considering technology investment. Often at the top of the list is cost. “There are levels of automation and workforce reduction in our equipment, but it has a large price tag,” says Mehringer.
FeneTech’s Batcha notes the cost challenge as well, noting that “implementing new software or equipment can be a significant investment especially for smaller companies.”
Morgan Donohue, vice president of Erdman Automation, says, “The majority of the jobs on the factory floor are cost prohibitive to automate, most due to [their] non-repetitive nature. The product variations and multiplicity of the work needing to be performed require a significant amount of flexibility. This coupled with tight wage scales and often relatively low volume, the return on investment [of automation] is not often there.”
Additionally, on the flip side of attracting workers with new technology and automation, it creates new personnel and resource challenges. Batcha notes his customers have to ask: Do current employees have the necessary skillset for the new technology? Will someone need to be hired? Do employees have time to install, train and implement new technology?
McKinsey Global Institute’s, 2018 report, “Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation” cautions that as many as 375 million workers will need to switch occupational categories by 2030 due to automation. Their recommendation for workers and the companies that hire them? Stay flexible. “Businesses will be on the front lines of the workplace as it changes,” states the report. “This will require them to both retool their business processes and reevaluate their talent strategies and workforce needs.”
Industry sources echo the research: in order for the industry to fully realize the potential of automation, everyone has to be all in. Company leadership and industry advocates must collaborate and support technology adoption.
“We have to collaborate more as an industry to get closer to full automation. Even with design we get picky,” says Mehringer. “There’s so much customization in windows, it's hard to automate. It’s hard to standardize products. But at the end of the day, there's not much homeowner benefit if you can't simply get windows built in the most cost-efficient way.”
Batcha agrees. For companies to adopt more technology advancements into their workplaces, “[the industry] must develop industry standards to enable standard communication between software, machines and vendors,” he says.
Along with industry companies collaborating on automation standards, working to improve the perception of manufacturing itself will take a concerted effort. “Many younger workers do not know the level of automated machinery and software used within the industry and skills needed to maintain or operate the systems,” says Batcha. “[We need to] educate younger workers about the opportunities available in manufacturing from both a technology, automation as well as a personal, professional growth standpoint.”
Donohue notes a big professional growth opportunity for young people is the stability of the industry. “The product is large, fairly fragile and in most cases requires short lead times. This industry will stay in North America for the most part,” he says. “If you get in and learn it from the ground up and have a good work ethic and track record, you will have a job.”