Viewpoints: Advancing Technology vs. US Manufacturing Jobs
Today's manufacturing trend toward automation and software management systems has had a tremendous impact on shop floors in the US. Modern-day technology is making us more productive than ever, and allows us to automate previously manual operations. This shift, however, has led to a very controversial topic among US manufacturers: are our jobs being sacrificed to technology advancements?
The misconception that the sophistication of our equipment is stealing jobs from the US manufacturing workforce is a poor evaluation of what is actually happening. It's true that today's technology is helping us streamline processes and minimize manual operations, but that does not directly translate into lost jobs.
Today's machines are far more productive than the equipment they've supplanted. Automation and CNC machines are allowing shops to reduce the number of operator-dependent tasks during production. Today, we have fewer talented workers to replenish the positions of machinists who have spent the past 30 years on the shop floor doing repetitive jobs, such as setting up fixtures on a machining center and moving materials. Companies have been forced to find an alternative to this once-substantial workforce. In the US, we turn to automation to balance this shortage of skilled laborers.
The days of hand-scraping ways and using gears are in the past.Technology has changed to make shops more profitable, reducing costs related to the work-in-process. Modern-day equipment is moving raw material off the shop floor through production, and getting jobs out faster than ever before.
Importing machine tools from other countries positively impacts the US economy. These imported machines are helping US corporations and manufacturers produce products at the lowest possible cost. In addition, products can be manufactured at a much faster rate, allowing the overflow to be shipped abroad and sold.
Today's machines are 20 to 25% more productive than those built just five years ago. Not only do they employ today's advancing technologies, including servomotors, linear ways, and CNC controllers, but machine tools are a lot less expensive than they have ever been.
In addition to automating processes, modern technology allows equipment, automation systems, and cell controllers to be monitored from anywhere. Equipment can now run untended, around the clock. If any problems occur during untended production, notification can be sent instantly to a cell phone or pager. By making operators immediately aware of issues that occur during untended machining, production output can still achieve peak efficiencies.
The advancement of today's technology and equipment is exactly what US manufacturers need to stay competitive in the global market. Without the current level of performance we receive from our machine tools, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the US to compete with low-labor-cost countries. By utilizing equipment that can keep our manual operations lean, and maximize parts-per-cycle production, US manufacturers can compete worldwide.
As technology leads to the reduction of manual positions on the shop floor, it also causes the emergence of new roles within an organization that are more managerial and strategic in nature. Yesterday's operator-oriented tasks are now automated, allowing workers to focus on workflow analysis, software, and control engineering.
Suddenly, just as important as the machine tool itself are the material-handling systems and operators that provide materials to the machine tool, and the cell controllers that schedule the tooling and part programming to be sure everything is in the right place at the right time, and operating at maximum capacity.
In addition to new internal programming and workflow-analysis positions, today's equipment is creating more jobs industry-wide with companies that specialize in tooling, fixturing, chip conveyors, and other products and technologies that are needed on the production floor.
Our workforce is becoming more educated on the software and programming aspects of the equipment, and is focusing more specifically on controls and electrical engineering. This development is setting a solid foundation for a healthy, competitive infrastructure within the US that will keep domestic manufacturing thriving for years to come.
Technology has made our opportunities limitless. To say that advances in technology are taking away US manufacturing jobs is a short-sighted observation. We need to stay a progressive nation, and recognize the value that more-sophisticated software and automation brings to us. Ultimately, it is keeping our factories alive and competitive within the US and throughout the world.
This article was first published in the February 2007 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.