This article first appeared in IndustryWeek.
I do my best to stay attuned to manufacturing trends. There is a confusing barrage of articles and opinions on Industry 4.0. Some articles create new terms, others provide competing definitions around similar concepts, and others seek use cases to justify new technologies. Some are already talking about Industry 5.0 while 4.0 is still in its infancy and ill-defined.
For example, I find the dialogue around robots to be particularly perplexing. On the hand, I read predictions about how robots will save our economy. We will reshore thousands of jobs. All the repetitive, dangerous, menial tasks humans never wanted to do will suddenly be gone through the salvation of robots. Yet, other predictions claim robots will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, greatly reduce career options, and eliminate over 25% of current jobs through automation. The hardest hit will be low-skill, low-wage individuals; but all of us will eventually be out of our current jobs.
So, which path is it? In my conversations with manufacturing leaders, there's little doubt that regardless of the prediction, the technologies of Industry 4.0 are poised to be gamechangers for every company, supply chain, and industry.
Agriculture offers us a history lesson on the implications of technological advances. Our country is now a significant exporter of food. We help feed the world in so many ways: food production outputs, food safety technologies, transportation and logistics, and the transfer of production knowledge and know-how. In the 1870's, 50% of the U.S. population was employed in agriculture. Today, it is less than 2%. With automation and science, productivity has advanced greatly through technologies in planters and combines, plant science, and so many other innovations. While the employment percentage declined drastically, output increased significantly. In fact, productivity has doubled since 1948, ensuring our critical role in feeding humanity. Imagine what a farmer of the 1870s would think today.
Manufacturing is clearly on a parallel path. In the 1970s, manufacturing employment hovered around 27% of the labor market, whereas today it is around 10%. Meanwhile, productivity has nearly doubled since 1950, and manufacturing output is at an all-time high. Yet, as with any economic progress, we face challenges and uncertainties.
Yes, new technologies will destroy jobs. And, yes, these technologies will also create new jobs and strengthen the competitive position and security of many other jobs. It's a time of momentous change and opportunity. Now is also the time of significant responsibility for leaders to embrace this future of manufacturing. For our companies, our employees, and their families. Because, if not us, then who? What country? What industry competitor? We can and must keep our competitive future bright.
U.S. manufacturers can embrace industry 4.0 and overcome growth obstacles by developing a strategic technology adoption plan. This means being clear about the problems to solve and the opportunities to embrace, and seeking out knowledge partners, public and private, that can help leverage industry 4.0 concepts and incorporate new technologies. The MEP National Network is one such partner that can assist manufacturers with appropriate resources to formulate and execute a technology adoption plan that boosts the bottom line. MEP centers use a systematic approach to help manufacturers define opportunities, scout technology options, and identify the proper solution for their investment.
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