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The Post-COVID Future of the Manufacturing Workforce

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In his Virtual Engineering Week presentation, Ryan Chan of Upkeep described the changes in the manufacturing labor we can expect during and after the pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic slammed US manufacturing just as the sector was emerging from an 18-month slump. Rather than simply contracting as a response, manufacturers turned to technology. The immediate goal was to use smart tools to support social distancing, but the net result of technology deployment for many manufacturers was a leaner, more productive operation. Many of the workers who had been performing low-skill and repetitive jobs have been shifted to higher-skilled tasks as automation expanded.

While many of these measures were prompted by the pandemic, they are now set to undergird the manufacturing process going forward. Coming out of the lockdowns and pared-down operations, we’re likely to see a new manufacturing workforce of high-skilled, well-paid technicians replacing the repetitive-work employees.

During Informa’s Virtual Engineering Week conference last week, Ryan Chan, founder and CEO at UpKeep, presented the session, “The Future of Industrial Jobs & Manufacturing.” Upkeep produces software for maintenance and asset management in manufacturing, which gives Chan a close view of the global community of manufacturers.

From that experience, Chan explained what manufacturers have seen in technology improvements during the pandemic. Those advances have had a profound impact on the nature of manufacturing jobs. While automation deployments have disrupted many of the manual tasks in manufacturing, technology has also opened up opportunities for higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs.

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Technology is changing the manufacturing process and thus changing the workforce.

The Digital Transformation During COVID-19

The pandemic slammed the manufacturing industry. Yet manufacturers responded positively to the disruption. “COVID has challenged the manufacturing industry more than the 2007 manufacturing downturn,” said Chan. “COVID has hampered manufacturing, but it has accelerated progress toward digital transformation.”

While manufacturers were already adopting technology, the rate of that adoption has been pushed by the pandemic. “COVID has accelerated the changes we expected to see in 10 years. It has produced a demand for manufacturing technology,” said Chan. “Manufacturers are seeing extreme demand for many of their products, which is reflected in empty shelves. Yet some of their non-essential products have seen a fall-off. COVID has slimmed down the options for manufacturers, so they are turning to technology for answers.”

Some of the technology manufacturers are adopting replaces the most basic functions – the use of paper and pencils. “Using paper, pencils, and spreadsheet to manage the plant is no longer an option. Almost overnight they’ve had to reduce the office staff,” said Chan. “Traditional filing cabinets and paper don’t work anymore, so manufacturers are turning to technology. This will continue to accelerate even after the COVID restrictions are lifted.”

The Future Workforce in Manufacturing

Chan pointed to examples of what Upkeep manufacturing customers are doing in the process of adopting technology:

  • Some companies like Dow Chemical are relying on video inspection to reduce travel expenses. This will be a big part of the future.
  • Optimization is increasing in MRO. There’s a big push toward the digitization of the storeroom. COVID has forced a lot of businesses to look at every minute spent that isn’t productive.
  • Many of these technologies existed before COVID, but the pandemic has pushed the adoption into full throttle. Companies are optimizing every cost and using technology to help with that.
  • These changes will impact the future of jobs. It will not replace human workers, but it will enable manufacturers to be more productive.

Examples of the tasks that are getting shifted to technology include equipment maintenance. “We’re seeing an increase in vibration analysis and robotics. The walking around the plant and writing on payer is getting replaced by integrated systems and sensors,” said Chan. “Integrated systems are replacing data silos. One system speaks to another to make better decisions.”

The Changing Labor at Manufacturing Plants

As manufacturers adopt technology, many are moving to increasingly sophisticated smart tools. “Manual inspection is getting replaced with visual inspection. AI is replacing human workers. Robots have already replaced jobs,” said Chan. “Technology will allow workers to be more productive, but it won’t replace them. Technology is empowering people to be more efficient, but not eliminated.”

As the type of work shifts, the workforce will be revamped to accommodate the new plant. “Smarter tech will require fewer field workers, but more workers will need to understand the data,” said Chan. “The low-skill monotonous jobs will go away, leaving more complex tasks for workers.”

The main reason workers will not be replaced is that they know the job. Yet they have to take on more sophisticated work. “Every time we go through a revolution, we become more productive and we push for more education and higher-skilled, better-paying jobs,” said Chan. “The people most equipped to do the higher-skilled work are not the software and algorithm writers, it is the people who are closest to the problem. Data science can help us look at big sets of data, but no one knows the manufacturing equipment better than the workers on the floor.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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