Job security is top of mind for workers within the manufacturing space and that concern is growing with the increasingly prevalent AI and IoT technologies that are changing the landscape of manufacturing. The fear that robots will take over and eliminate the need for people continues to dominate conversations about automating manufacturing processes.
The reality: The world is changing and the need to reimagine supply chains is more difficult than ever. Will robots take over as doomsday movies have spawned fear for decades, or will they support emerging needs in an increasingly complex global society?
What is Industry 4.0?
mike wilkinsongeneral manager and vice president Paragon Innovations which designs and engineers products for its customers, provides insight into where manufacturing companies have been and where they are potentially headed. To truly understand the current state of affairs, it is critical to understand where the manufacturing industry has been. What follows is a brief history of the manufacturing industry as explained by Wilkinson:
- Industry 1.0 – In the beginning, factories were created to make handmade items automatically using machines.
- Industry 2.0 – The first major evolution came with the addition of railroads and the telegraph, which facilitated national communications and the ability to move goods and people faster across the United States.
- Industry 3.0 – Manufacturing is upgraded once again with the addition of the computer which provided better communication tools, enabled improved operational processes and increased personal productivity.
- Industry 4.0 – Where the industry is now without a clear definition at present, as the reality of Industry 4.0 is still emerging. However, it is generally recognized that it is the implementation of advanced manufacturing technologies including IoT, AI and 3D additive manufacturing that make processes and outcomes more efficient, more automated and more advanced.
With the rise of automation, fears of robots removing people from the workforce have resurfaced. However, there are many layers to the complexities and results of further automation of manufacturing processes, including an increased ability to bring manufacturing operations back to the US.
A Brief History of Overseas Manufacturing Operations
To truly understand the complexity of nearshoring operations, it helps to know why US manufacturing operations went global and what the economic impact has been over time. It all started in the early 1990s, shortly after the Cold War ended in December 1991.
“The hypnosis at the time was that nations that trade, do business together, will not fight each other,” he noted. David BeardPresident, Beard Supply Chain and Operational Solutions. Bearid further explained that the thinking at the time was that countries would interlock with every part of the planet specializing in something and the United States would specialize in services and consumer economies.
As of 2022, the global supply chain has evolved to meet the initial goals of uniting the world through manufacturing. However, it has not unilaterally prevented conflicts between countries. In fact, conflicts like the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine it can seriously affect supply chain operations and derail a company’s ability to produce needed products.
The argument for bringing manufacturing back to the US
There is no doubt that people want bring manufacturing jobs back to the US, but are they willing to accept the consequences of doing so? Not only would it take years of effort to get operations back on track, it would also have multiple consequences, including an increase in the cost of goods.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic brought supply chain problems into everyone’s homes for the first time in modern history. Everything from toilet paper to pet food, bread and dairy products, and from hand sanitizer to medicine, quickly disappeared from store shelves, leaving Americans to suffer from the unknown landscape of the product shortage.
Worse yet, even healthcare workers were unable to obtain the equipment they needed to provide the highest level of patient care. The reality is that America’s reliance on other nations to meet the requirements of daily living and health care puts lives at risk.
Nearshoring supports a more efficient US supply chain
Saving money and reducing consumer costs are the main drivers for companies to use resources abroad to meet production needs. But what if it’s possible to bring manufacturing operations to North America and keep the costs of goods and services low?
Nearshoring, the practice of keeping operations on a single continent, coupled with increased automation is an increasingly popular solution. Nearshoring shortens the supply chain, reduces transportation costs, increases business oversight of product quality, and gives companies the opportunity to support a positive work environment.
“We have things that require labor to assemble, and overseas labor tends to be even less expensive,” Wilkinson explained. Less expensive labor can be found closer to home in many South American countries. And automation enables more jobs in the US “The more we can get the manual work out of things by automating, using IoT, using data, we will drive down the costs of things and therefore the more relocation,” Wilkinson continued.
Smart manufacturing can bring jobs back to the US
Smart manufacturing creates production lines that are flexible enough to manufacture multiple products because they are more customizable. The combination of automation, 3D printing, and robotics opens up endless possibilities, including point-of-need manufacturing. For example, imagine that a hospital can manufacture surgical equipment on site as needed.
This is a possibility that exists not too long in the future. Kosten Metweli, co-founder and CSO of Sunlight.io, explains smart manufacturing as “a transformation in the way manufacturing operations work by making factories heavily data-driven in real time. The processes are highly automated and can make decisions autonomously without the need for human interaction.”
These advances lead to a reduction in the negative effects of labor shortages, more efficient processes, greater flexibility, better preventative maintenance, and reduced costs. Does it support “a reassessment of the need to offshor so much manufacturing if it can offer a close enough price point, albeit with better quality, better customization, and without the 3-week lead time of shipping from China?” Meterweli continued.
The Role of IoT in Nearshoring Manufacturing Operations
IoT is critical to creating smart manufacturing facilities that support job growth, shorten the supply chain, increase product availability, improve safety, and facilitate profitable product development. But what exactly is IoT?
dan allfordpresident in ARC Specialties who has worked in manufacturing for decades, breaks down the concept simply by stating that IoT “sounds like a robot… That’s what we’ve been doing all along. A robot is nothing more than a control system with a bunch of sensor inputs and a bunch of outputs.”
“Robotics and the IoT allow companies to move dangerous and potentially harmful production activity to a robot or other automated technology, protecting our most valuable resource – our people. In addition, robots are more suitable for precision work and repetitive tasks,” he explained. barry turnerTechnical Business Development Manager at red lion.
According to Allford, robots will have “more sensors, more control power, more inputs, more outputs, more functionality. So for me, that’s the Internet of Things. We are upgrading the machines to do more.”
“That’s the trend, it’s called progress!” exclaimed Allford
So? Will IoT and robots bring back jobs or eliminate opportunities?
Smart devices streamline communications, increase process efficiency, and protect employees from hazardous work tasks. They replace human capital in carrying out certain activities while creating job opportunities. After all, technology does not create itself and cannot function without human involvement.
At the end of the day, there is no real way of knowing what manufacturing will look like in 2050. Is it the terrifying robot-run post-apocalyptic world imagined by popular media? Or is it a world where people can maximize their potential while providing new opportunities for growth?
What is clear: IoT technologies are here to stay. As for how they will evolve and influence the world of manufacturing, only time will tell.