Despite the fears surrounding it, automation is one of the answers to replacing an aging workforce.
That’s the position of Greg Herren, general manager of Multi-Craft Contractors Inc., an electrical, mechanical, HVAC and crane services company. As older generations such as Herren’s exit, he said at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce Manufacturing Outlook, there’s a need for new blood in the industry.
“That’s going to leave a vacuum for folks that want to work in the factories,” he said during a panel discussion at the Dec. 6 event. “So to answer that is automation. We’re seeing it grow every day.”
Herren said his company, which provides automation and engineering services to food processing and manufacturing companies, has been involved in the field for around seven years. Multi-Craft Contractors has invested $1.5 million-$2 million in automation over the past five years.
A 2018 report from the World Economic Forum agrees. Through the development of new machines and software, it estimates automation could create 58 million new jobs by 2022.
Referring to automation’s development as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the report notes companies are seeking to harness emerging technologies to reach higher levels of efficiency in production. Employers also are seeking workers with new skills to operate equipment needed to keep up with frequently changing technology.
Making an investment
Multi-Craft Contractors is among local companies making investments in automation equipment.
Some employers might fear automation will simply eliminate jobs. While Herren acknowledged some jobs are being cut due to the technology, he said automation is currently best at doing dirty, dangerous and demeaning work. That includes lifting heavy objects repeatedly or highly repetitive and boring tasks, such as sorting. The jobs can have high turnover or injury risks, making it difficult for manufacturers to keep them filled by people.
“Humans are unbeatable when it comes to performing complex, randomized tasks that involve vision and judgment,” he said. “Automation is far from being able to match the human body’s ability in these areas.”
Both Multi-Craft and L&W Industries LLC, a Springfield-based railroad signal products manufacturer, utilize computer numerical control equipment, which automates many processes otherwise performed by hand.
L&W President Jenny Carr said automated machines have replaced manual drilling at the company. Now, it’s all programmed.
“It has really helped in terms of productivity and quality improvement,” she said. “It’s a good thing because it’s safer. Maybe you don’t have as many people doing manual machining, but really that wasn’t as safe.”
She said since buying the 50-year-old business from the Herb Watkins family in 2012, ownership has invested upwards of $2 million toward replacing old equipment. Most of the new equipment was automation-related, including a $600,000 laser cutter.
More innovation investments are in the company’s future, Carr said.
“We’ve got a couple other machining centers we’re trying to bring on line,” she added.
The company’s also looking to scale up its current 70-person workforce, Carr said. L&W employed 50 in 2015, when it moved to Partnership Industrial Center from East Chestnut Expressway, according to past Springfield Business Journal reporting.
New jobs at L&W would contribute to a growing manufacturing workforce in the Springfield area.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Springfield region in 2018 employed 23,818 people in manufacturing – up 9.7% from 2014’s total of 21,708.
Jobs involving automation require education and training, as Herren said it is typically very complicated to design, diagnose and repair.
At Ozarks Technical Community College, there are no specific automation classes, but robotics is taught to students, said technology instructor Landon Vinson.
“With industrial systems technology, automation is a part of all of it,” he said. “It’s ingrained in every component of what we do.”
In the program, Vinson said the top career is a multiskilled technician, also called a mechatronics technician, with jobs in designing, manufacturing and maintaining products that have mechanical and electronic components. Mechanical and electrical engineers also are sought after, Vinson said.
“There’s many different paths, it just depends on what area of the workforce they want to introduce themselves to,” he said. “This skill set won’t go away; it’s only going to get bigger. As the technology increases, you need those people who are able to maintain, repair or troubleshoot that piece of equipment.”
The educational options likely will expand as OTC’s Center for Advanced Manufacturing is built, he said. Construction is scheduled for completion in 2022.
“In designing this, we’re designing it for years down the road,” he said, adding it’s going to give the college advanced training capabilities. “It allows us to maintain flexibility so that we can adapt to the changing environment.”
Herren said the changing environment is good reason why manufacturers should get prepared to invest in automation.
“It’s really going to be a quantum change in the next 10 to 20 years of how we do things as a manufacturer,” he said.
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