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America has an unusual relationship with automation. The technology is still largely seen as a threat to American jobs, with countless media stories, reports and industry studies damning the use of automation as the end of human employment. For example, according to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, more than 73 million American jobs could be at risk of automation before 2030. While this may sound threatening, the statistic doesn’t quite tell the full story.
Automation has long been used to displace intensive labor. As recently as the 19th century, more than 80 percent of American jobs were based on agricultural farming. Today, just 2 percent of Americans work in this field. Modernization of agriculture certainly didn’t destroy the U.S. economy, nor did it leave the nation jobless.
Looking to modern manufacturing, the situation is similar. The increasing use of robots and automation admittedly will displace some roles in the industry, but adopting this technology is essential for enabling further growth. At this stage, manufacturers that do not embrace automation risk stagnating their progress and contribution to U.S. manufacturing growth.
Amazon has long been an advocate of using automation to facilitate growth. During a three-year transformation project, the company increased the number of robots in warehousing from 1,400 to 45,000. During this period, the rate in which the company hired employees did not decrease. In fact, deployment of these robots created increased capacity and in turn more vacancies.
Globally, competing nations are already using automation to improve production. For instance, China saw the largest growth in demand for industrial robots in 2018, with robot deployment growing by 58 percent. To compete with nations of this size, U.S. manufacturers must take a similar approach to build on the current political drive for American manufacturing.
Although automation and robots will change the roles of manufacturing employees, it certainly won’t replace them. Increased use of this technology simply will force a shift from manually intensive labor to jobs that require human skills.
Unlike human employees, automation cannot negotiate, persuade or generate new ideas. Machines also cannot provide the emotional intelligence, creativity or intuition required to make complex decisions on the factory floor. In addition, don’t overlook the advanced engineering skills required to build, program and maintain this machinery once it has been integrated.
American manufacturing may be on the rise, and according to a recent survey from the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), 95 percent of manufacturers now have a positive outlook for their companies. However, without automating for growth, the nation cannot expect to surpass its global competition.
Jonathan Wilkins is the marketing director for EU Automation, an obsolete industrial parts supplier.