How Automation Helps Bring Manufacturing Jobs to the U.S.

Feb. 24, 2014
Automation is essential to keeping manufacturers competitive in the global market. Though there's no disputing the fact that some low-skilled jobs will be casualties in this effort to keep manufacturing alive and well.

I grew up in the automation industry. My dad was an engineer, which meant working long hours on designs and a lot of travel lasting weeks at a time to places like Hayward, Wis., Houlton, Maine, Dierks, Ark., and Las Vegas – New Mexico, not Nevada. For many people, those realities keep them away from the profession; but it was quite the opposite for me. I was drawn into the complexity of the systems my father was designing; the variety of things he was helping his clients make—not to mention the idea of making big things move, and making those big things move fast. I followed directly in his footsteps, earned my engineering degree, got a job at a system integration firm, and started traveling to places like Spring City, Tenn., Millport, Ala., and Arcata, Cal.

Thinking I had the greatest job in the world for a young, single male, I was quite surprised when I was not always warmly welcomed by my clients’ personnel. You see, in most of the places I traveled, the facilities we were working in were the lifeblood of the community. A large factory in Millport, Ala., impacted most of the families in Millport, Ala. More often than not, I was coming in to automate a process that had been done manually for years. Therefore, I was viewed as the guy costing people their jobs. It was quite the dose of reality for me.

As time passed, the phenomena of offshoring kicked in with the unveiling of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Entire mills were being shut down and their operations being relocated overseas. These moves were done in large part to take advantage of cheap labor in foreign countries—labor so cheap that it offset the logistical challenges, freight costs and quality issues that exist in operating a manufacturing facility overseas. It was remarkable to me that products, destined to be sold in the U.S., could actually be manufactured in a foreign country and delivered here cheaper than if it were manufactured here. It was also very concerning since the lifeblood of my occupation was the manufacturing facilities very much like the ones being shut down.

Today we are seeing a phenomena coined “reshoring,” where manufacturing is being brought back to the U.S. While there are many reasons for this, one cannot dispute the role automation plays. Automation is a key in combating low overseas labor rates and keeping manufacturing competitive in our new global business landscape. Wise investments in automation can completely eliminate low-skilled, repetitive tasks, almost eliminating those labor costs entirely. Granted, the adoption of automation does mean those low-skilled, repetitive jobs are going away. Though this can be a difficult issue, the real question modern technology forces us to face becomes: Is it better to lose the lower-skilled jobs and have manufacturing in the U.S. with a sizable level of employment, or ship manufacturing overseas and lose all the jobs?

By retaining manufacturing in the U.S., we keep management, maintenance, skilled trade and operator jobs that would otherwise be offshored. It also drives a tremendous amount of ancillary business with local suppliers, be it hardware suppliers, trucking companies or restaurants. From a broader perspective, the U.S. has also proven itself to be a better steward of the environment. With controls on emissions and waste and standards for raw materials, manufacturing runs much cleaner in the U.S. than China, where air and water pollution run rampant. Plus, with manufacturing located closer to the consumer base, we're able to reduce the amount of fueld needed to transport products.

If you follow the reasoning of my argument, regardless of your political affiliation, there is solid common ground for all of us in keeping manufacturing in the U.S.

Manufacturers have the responsibility to invest in automation to keep their factories competitive. It is not enough to simply update outdated controls to the most current platform. Manufacturers need to be driving for continuous improvement, by continually looking for emerging technologies and how they can be applied to make things more efficiently, of better quality, and with less waste. Those opportunities exist on every manufacturing floor and will always exist as long as technology advances. It is an exciting time for manufacturing and technology, which is why I got into this business in the first place.

Michael Gurney is Co-CEO of Concept Systems Inc., a Certified member of the Control System Integrators Association. Concept Systems is headquartered in Albany, Ore.

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