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The Robot’s Role in the New Manufacturing Workforce

Posted By ML Admin, May 31, 2012 at 11:56 AM, in Category: Next-Generation Leadership and the Changing Workforce

Most American companies want to make their products in the U.S.A., but for many it just doesn’t make good business sense. The lack of tax incentives, the high wages, and the health-care costs cause many executives to fall into the manufacturing money pit when it comes to producing product Stateside. But the real issue, as recently pointed out by Apple CEO Tim Cook, is…a skills shortage (shocking).

But what kind of skills are we really talking about? Do we need welders, drillers, and assembly line workers? Yes. That’s why The Boy Scouts of America can now earn a merit badge in welding -- an attempt by the organization to offset the predicted demand for 140,000 new welders in the natural gas, steel, and automotive industries by the year 2019.

However, those particular skill sets will soon be filled. A few weeks ago, in his blog “Manufacturing 2035: Where Have All the Workers Gone?” Chris Chiappinelli recapped a statement by Cisco Chief Futurist Dave Evans, who said that by 2035, the manufacturing workforce would be replaced by robots.

We are starting to see the signs that this could be true. This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that engineers have created a robot capable of deboning a chicken. While that may seem unremarkable to some, it is indeed a dramatic step forward in robotics. For years, robots have only been able to perform simple pick-and-place tasks or material handling performed by autonomous robot vehicles like those from Kiva Systems, recently acquired by Amazon. Now, however, with the evolution of software, sensors, and vision systems, the chicken-deboning robot has enough dexterity to replicate a human’s eye-hand coordination.

Soon, these droids will adroitly pinch the smallest of pieces -- like components of an iPhone -- to perform the assembly as efficiently as a human. And, with artificial intelligence, they could have enough cognitive capability to learn or even discern when something is wrong on the assembly line.

Boston-based startup Heartland Robotics plans to roll out its first robots later this year. According to the company’s Website, “They will have intelligence and awareness. They will be teachable, safe, and affordable. They will make us productive in ways we never imagined…they will make business more competitive. Keeping jobs from going overseas.”

That would be fantastic news for American manufacturers. But would it be good news for American workers? Will the workforce soon be obsolete?

At the end of his blog, Chiappinelli says: “It makes me wonder whether our current fixation on bridging the manufacturing skills gap isn’t terribly shortsighted. Shouldn’t we figure out what role humans will play in the workforce of 2035?”

I agree 100% with his observation. Shouldn’t we be teaching the Boy Scouts -- and, by the way, Girl Scouts -- of America how to program a robot as well as how to weld? We should harness the knowledge they already have about electronics and the wireless world to build a next generation of IT wizards.

More importantly, we need to instill in the next-generation workforce a hard-core work ethic and the ability to be as flexible and agile as our businesses are. I’m not sure we are currently teaching that skill set in school, or at home for that matter.

Written by ML Admin

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