Manufacturing Future and Automation

Richard WolinBy Richard Wolin, Director of NMC Training Services and MMTC Northern Regional Office

Automation vs. Employment. The traditional view often goes something like this: “It will be faster, result in higher quality, and be less expensive, although it will eliminate jobs.” Really? So how is it that we have so much more automation than 100 years ago and yet so many more people are employed today? The conversation is often presented as an “either/or” option rather than an “and” opportunity.

Of course the jobs of today aren’t the same, and we aren’t the same people because the world evolves, we hope. There is, and always will be, an evolution of work – from buggy builders, ice cutters, lamp lighters, and switchboard operators to web designers, SEO specialists, drone operators and robotics technicians.

The challenge is learning from the past and preparing our students, workers, and companies to anticipate the obvious: technology will increase, jobs will change, and change will happen whether we want it to or not. An organization’s, as well as an individual’s, failure to adapt is really the only failure.

In early May, I attended the National Summit for the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) to network with and learn from MEP centers around the country. For me, the most impressive presentation was Matt Tyler, president and CEO of Vickers Engineering of New Troy, a little town in southwest Michigan not far from the Indiana border. Tyler talked about the company’s growth in revenue and employees through the use of automation. What had my attention was the data he presented to back it up. His basic message was the company found it necessary to add automation to remain competitive with cost, quality, and delivery for the customer and safety for the employees. While the automation replaced low-skilled operator jobs, Vickers Engineering grew from 35 to 200-plus employees with jobs in more technical areas, such as programmers, technicians, quality staff, and equipment maintenance. As Tyler pointed out, automation helps the United States take jobs back from low-cost countries. You can learn more about Vickers Engineering at vickerseng.com/videos.cfm.

So what are the implications for employers, employees, educators, and students in our region?

Employers: Plan and budget for training your employees – and this means both time and money. Make it a cultural expectation that employees need to grow their knowledge of technology for you to remain competitive. Expect to budget not only for the training costs but also for the related wage increases necessary to retain this talent. While this may seem difficult to swallow, it’s better than the alternative of not training, or training and not retaining. Remember,your organization will be the mutual beneficiary of this investment. There’s an old joke in the training business where the employer asks, “What if I train them and they leave?” and the advisor responds, “What if you don’t and they stay?” Keep in mind there are often multiple funding sources available to help with training costs. Contact your local workforce agency or community college to learn more.

Employees: Invest in yourself! Take advantage of training offered through your company and if your company doesn’t offer or support training and there’s no opportunity to grow, then it’s all the more reason to invest in yourself. You increase your individual economic value through your skills and knowledge, as well as your ability to apply them. The more valuable you are to an employer, the more you will earn in your lifetime and the more resistant you become to recessions.

Educators: Make your priority STEM and STEAM education. It’s not going away and without educating our future workforce, we won’t have the economic resources to support a world-class education system. Participation in local efforts to link school to work, such as Vex Robotics, First Robotics Competition, Hour of Code, Manufacturing Day, business tours, and career days, are all are critical in helping students answer their own questions about, “Why do I need to learn this?”

Students: Get involved in and demand learning that is fun, challenges your thinking, and builds teamwork — programs such as makerspaces, eCybermission, and endless other opportunities can be found on the web. Talk to your parents and educators about what and how you like to learn. Your most useful tool will always be your brain and the more you can fill it with learning that blends logic, creativity, and teamwork, the more you will be able to solve the most pressing challenges of your generation.

Yes, we need to embrace automation, not as “either/or” with jobs, but as “and.”

Richard Wolin
rwolin@nmc.edu
231-995-2003
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