During President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech in late January, he made a point to focus on the development of more advanced manufacturing institutes, also called “hubs.” The idea is that these hubs would focus on advanced manufacturing technologies and possible commercialization of those technological developments, all with the hope of providing well-paying manufacturing jobs for hard-working and sufficiently educated middle class Americans.
Right now two manufacturing hubs exist: America Makes (formerly called the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, Youngstown, Ohio, and a yet-to-be-named institute that will be located at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., which will focus on next-generation semiconductor development. The idea of investing in the advancement of manufacturing in the U.S. is exciting and likely necessary, but in all honesty, any widespread job development is still years away—if ever.
“As we advance manufacturing, we are advancing jobs, but it is difficult to take a thermometer and measure the job creation,” said Scott Deutsch, the spokesman for America Makes, as reported in the Around Washington report in the March 2014 issue of The FABRICATOR.
The next-generation technology that these hubs hope to develop is representative of the main threat to more widespread job creation in the future. Automation is going to make many jobs that exist today obsolete.
A 2013 academic study suggested that possibly 47 percent of total U.S. employment could be automated in the next year or two. While the researchers don’t assign a formal number to the potential jobs eliminated by automation, they do offer a plausible premise: “… algorithms for big data are now rapidly entering domains reliant upon pattern recognition and can readily substitute for labor in a wide range of nonroutine cognitive tasks. In addition, advanced robots are gaining enhanced senses and dexterity, allowing them to perform a broader scope of manual tasks.”
Remember seeing the dual-armed robot at FABTECH®? Soon this Motoman robot will be joined by similar robots from other manufacturers, and as the years go by, they will become easier to program and, as a result, more useful in high-mix, low-volume manufacturing environments. It wasn’t so long ago that robotic welding cells were looked at as being a true extravagance, but now plenty of medium-size job shops have automated welding capabilities. More automation of fabricating tasks is a matter of “when,” not “if.”
That works against almost everyone’s goal of more job creation. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office recently projected that the unemployment rate will remain above 6 percent until 2016. Manufacturing may be making a comeback when compared to the low days of the Great Recession, but it hardly will be the job-creation engine that the politicians in Washington desire.