"Seemingly, US manufacturing isn’t in a good position," Howard says. "According to data published by Federal Reserve, US factory production slumped for the second month in February 2019 and reports by the Institute for Supply Management echoed a similar sentiment, stating that US factories had declined in multiple areas, including employment, orders, production and deliveries."
The prevailing narrative of the media is that nothing can stop the ongoing decline of manufacturing. But perhaps the industry’s savior lies in one of its most notorious antagonists – automation.
America has an unusual relationship with automated technology. While the first six-axis robots were introduced to automotive production lines as early as the 1960s, narratives since then have often focused on the threat technology poses to employment, rather than the productivity advantages and new job roles it can bring.
"Don’t get me wrong, there’s no denying automation has displaced some American jobs," says Howard. "However, that’s not to say the industry is failing, nor does it mean jobs in US manufacturing are impossible to find. Work in the sector certainly still exists, just not the same positions our grandmothers or grandfathers might have held."
Assembly applications are an ideal example of this. Unlike factories of the past, manufacturers today use conveyors, machine vision systems and pick and place equipment to complete assembly automatically. As a result, the number of assembly jobs has been steadily declining and is predicted to fall by 14% by 2026 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
However, not all job roles in the factory have so bleak of a future, Howard says. "Software development, for instance, was almost entirely absent from manufacturing facilities of the past. Today however, developers play a critical role in deploying automation, programming machinery and maintaining control software. Unsurprisingly then, vacancies in software are predicted to rise by 24 per cent by 2026, surpassing the number of jobs lost in assembly roles and creating entirely new opportunities.
"During the digital transformation of factories, workers with technical skillsets like this will become incredibly valuable. For instance, if making incremental deployments of automation, facilities will require regular installation and maintenance of industrial parts – and the staff to do so."
Concludes Howard, "Automation is not the movie villain it is often depicted to be and thankfully, most manufacturers can see its value and therefore aren’t rooting for its defeat. The US remains one of the world’s most lucrative markets for manufacturing, but the sector requires an injection of optimism about automation and its potential to create jobs."