US Manufacturing Turns to Automation to Fight Labor Shortage

As it continues to grapple with a labor shortage, supply chain disruption and rising costs, the U.S. manufacturing sector is turning to technology, automation and mobile devices for help.


The ongoing labor shortage is pushing U.S. manufacturers to develop new and creative ways to keep their operations running without additional manpower. Whereas, in the past, a hiring spree could help cover the bases during peak seasons or fill in the gaps during disruptive periods, manufacturers no longer have the luxury of hanging up a “Help Wanted” sign and waiting for the applications to pour in.


The hiring landscape changed dramatically when the global pandemic emerged. According to Deloitte, the manufacturing industry lost 578,000 jobs in 2020 — a number that wiped out roughly six years of job gains. Throughout much of 2021, about 500,000 manufacturing jobs remained open and available, with manufacturers citing “attracting and retaining a quality workforce” as one of their top challenges.


Other constraints include the ongoing supply chain disruptions and the fact that many manufacturers rely on a combination of legacy systems, spreadsheets and manual processes to run their operations and manage their inventory. With Deloitte projecting that 2.1 million U.S. manufacturing jobs will be unfilled by 2030, companies are increasingly turning to technology and automation to help fill the gaps and keep the flow of goods moving.


Building Resiliency Into the Manufacturing Supply Chain

As manufacturers shorten their supply chains and reshore production operations amid a labor shortage, automated solutions will play an important role in those shifts. Without access to skilled labor found in popular outsourcing destinations, American manufacturers will need to develop the ability to achieve more with fewer workers.


Many of those companies are turning to automation for help. A good fit for automation and robotics, manufacturing’s adoption of robotic process automation (RPA) has been rising steadily over the last couple of years and is expected to ramp up further in 2022. Defined as the software tools that either partially or fully automate manual, role-based and repetitive activities, RPA replicates the actions of a human being to perform various tasks.


Using robots and cobots, for instance, companies can hire for positions that would otherwise require someone who can handle hard physical labor. On the factory floor, manufacturers are using robots to run the conveyors that move product throughout the facility, while others are using automation to manage the heavy lifting, pallet loading and other strenuous tasks. These applications of automation provide a safer work environment and make daily tasks less arduous and cumbersome for employees (who, in turn, will be less likely to leave in search of less physically-demanding work).


Technology’s Role in the Modern Manufacturing Plant


As U.S. manufacturers increasingly turn to artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and other advanced technologies to drive automated production equipment, they need more rugged mobile devices to provide access to critical data and assets from anywhere in the facility. Additionally, the shift to using cloud-based software versus legacy systems has accelerated the need for reliable hardware that supports a connected factory floor.


With the global industrial automation market on track to reach $306.2 billion by 2027 and currently posting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.3%, demand for automated control systems, computers, robots and programmable controllers that can carry out industrial operations without human intervention is at an all-time high.


Using data-enabled control devices that interact with rugged field devices, for example, manufacturers can automate everything from scheduling and sales to ordering and product planning. “Industrial automation allows enterprises to manufacture large volumes of high-quality products at a faster rate,” Report Ocean states. “Also, with the adoption of automation, companies can remain competitive in the manufacturing industry.”


Supporting the Fourth Industrial Revolution

According to Deloitte, 57% of manufacturers have already used advanced technologies to redesign job tasks, including automating previously manual tasks. For example, AI and vision-based inspection applications can be used to monitor operations remotely, quickly identify issues and intervene before they become major problems. Other automated equipment making its way onto the manufacturing floor include collaborative robots (cobots), industrial robot arms, automated assembly machines and material conveyor systems, among other solutions. 


“It is no secret that the manufacturing industry in the U.S. has fallen behind over the last several decades, even though innovation in related technologies, including factory automation and robotics, are thriving in America’s universities and start-up community,” Hank Torbert points out in Forbes. With the world now in the midst of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” he says automation supports goals like faster product development, more efficient product manufacturing, smarter supply chains, higher product quality, lower operating costs and greater profits.


Automated Manufacturing Supported by Mobile, Rugged Devices

Once in place, automated solutions allow companies to move away from their legacy systems, leverage cloud-based options and equip their valued employees with rugged hardware. When these advanced technologies converge, the manufacturing landscape becomes more intelligent, safe and productive.


“Combining IoT with data analytics tools on the cloud allows manufacturers to receive key information at pace and provides them with a detailed picture of where efficiencies can be made across their suite of smart manufacturing products,” says Accenture UKI’s Maddie Walker. “It’s these insights that allow factories to be ‘smart’ – by linking humans, machines and products across the value chain and decisions can be made quickly.”


Automated manufacturing supported by mobile and rugged devices also helps companies streamline their operations, improve supply chain resiliency and enhance the customer experience. Combined, these gains can all contribute to top-line growth.


Smart manufacturing allows for more flexible, customized production set-ups, in many cases leveraging additive manufacturing solutions to deliver personalized products,” ISG’s David Lewis points out, “and improve the customer experience.”


Creating Next-Generation Factories

With the labor shortage expected to continue, supply chain disruptions persisting and the speed of business picking up, U.S. manufacturers need reliable automation that’s supported by mobile and rugged devices. The shift away from labor-centric operations to those focused more on automation, mobile devices and other advanced tools won’t be easy for all manufacturers, but it will be necessary.


“The hesitancy evident in some quarters is understandable as any change in the manufacturing industry has always been traditionally slower than in other sectors,” IT Pro’s David Howell states. “However, change is accelerating and manufacturers who can embrace the new technologies and integrate them seamlessly will create next-generation factories.”


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