This article is the fourth of a five-part series that, in the next two weeks, will call on subject matter experts to look ahead to digital transformation and manufacturing trends in 2024.
Also next month, please watch for Smart Industry's annual Crystal Ball Report, available to members as a downloadable e-handbook, from a larger group of experts who also forecast "smart" manufacturing milestones in the new year.
Automation often has a negative perception in discussions of workforce and economic challenges. Tired tropes about automation replacing people and adoption challenges dominate these discussions among those who disapprove of its implementation. And while these arguments seem possible at a glance, today’s reality would suggest the opposite is actually true.
According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report, as many as 97 million new roles may emerge as a result of adopting automation. In addition, the International Federation of Robotics reports that fewer than 10% of jobs can be automated. Instead of replacing jobs, robots are eliminating repetitive and dangerous tasks, allowing human workers to redirect their efforts toward more meaningful and dynamic work.
Additionally, with the increased accessibility of DIY automation—especially for small- and midsize businesses—these technologies have become more widely adopted and practical for manufacturers. Notably, manufacturers with fewer than 200 employees were previously hindered by the complexity and cost of automation. Now, not only are they embracing automated solutions at the highest rates, but they are also realizing the value of flexibility and customization.
Labor shortages in store for 2024
Automation not only creates jobs, but it can alleviate the talent shortage that was exacerbated by a mass exodus of workers as about 10,000 baby boomers retired daily in 2023. This was compounded by a lack of incoming talent entering the manufacturing sector; projections indicate that by 2030 a staggering 2.1 million manufacturing jobs are expected to remain unfilled, creating a substantial gap in the workforce.
Automation can help address this problem. By automating manual, repetitive, and dangerous tasks, businesses can shield their production lines from the impact of high employee churn. Moreover, this approach enables current employees to transition to more skilled roles, such as machine operators and programmers.
As manufacturers implement automation, it’s important they see the value and process of reskilling their workforce. By choosing solutions with an intuitive interface and providing comprehensive training, manufacturers can empower frontline staff to actively participate in and benefit from automation. This approach not only boosts production through human-machine collaboration, but also equips workers with future-proof skills that add strategic value in the face of ongoing labor market shifts.
Automation is a need, not a want
With workforce pressures and economic challenges greatly impacting the need for automation, it’s high time manufacturers began implementing these technologies into their business models to keep up with the demands of today’s market. Luckily, because of these recent forces, it has caused the rapid evolution in the accessibility of automation technology.
In 2024, automation will become a necessary part of production lines for manufacturers. The benefits are indisputable, from increased productivity, efficiency, return on investment and more—making automation the solution for withstanding the challenging economic conditions.
Beyond the business advantages, automation has proven results in enhancing job satisfaction and well-being for workers, contributing to increased retention rates—which will be a key differentiator as labor challenges continue. As adoption becomes more widespread, manufacturers that are resistant to implementing automation will not only fall behind in terms of speed and efficiency, but they will also fail to capture the fresh talent already trained on these technologies.
Not only does the reward far outweigh the risk, but it also aligns with the trend of reshoring and near-shoring, fostering socially responsible productions closer to home while reducing costs as inflation continues.
Rather than an all-or-nothing approach, manufacturers should evaluate where targeted investments in automation can boost efficiency without sacrificing jobs. The economic landscape points to the fact that now is the ideal time to modernize with the right automation solutions. Implemented carefully, increased automation can strengthen domestic production for the future—to the benefit of both businesses and workers.