Five Strategies to Combat Manufacturing Labor Shortages

Many manufacturers struggle to find skilled labor for their manufacturing plants. According to the Society of Manufacturing Engineers, 89% of manufacturers are having difficulty finding workers in the United States today. Not only is the labor shortage impacting businesses’ ability to hire, but it’s also stunting businesses’ ability to grow and meet production demands. Manufacturers across industries today have to turn away new revenue opportunities due to inadequate labor resources. The lack of skilled labor in manufacturing is a complex problem that requires a multi-pronged approach based on the following five major strategies.

Smart Automation Through Robotics and AI

Automation through industrial robots and AI in manufacturing is an effective solution to boost worker productivity and continue to meet the demand with fewer workers. Automation is widespread in mass production, but high-mix, high-variability operations have struggled to deploy automation.

Recent advances in AI and sensors have created a new generation of robotics technology available for high-mix applications. This technology does not require expensive tooling or fixturing to localize and hold the parts accurately. Parts can be accurately identified in the robot cell using sensor technology, enabling the robotic cell to deal with changes in part types and handle part variations due to upstream process variability.

With this new technology, the robot cell builds a model of the part using 2D and 3D imaging. AI enables the robot cell to program itself from the part model constructed by the cell for autonomous operation. Manufacturers do not need specialized programmers or engineering resources to use robotic cells, allowing existing shop floor workers upskilling opportunities to become robot operators. Sensing also enables the robot cells to deliver consistent part quality during execution.

The advances in safety technologies enable the integration of robotic cells in existing work environments. The robot’s autonomous capabilities shift the role of humans from manual labor to robot operation, ensuring parts are fed at the right frequency. Using industrial robots for previously strenuous or even dangerous tasks for humans can result in a safer factory environment for all workers.

Finally, Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) business model continues to gain popularity in the manufacturing space by eliminating the need for huge upfront capital expenditures and allowing businesses of all sizes to upgrade their manufacturing processes.

Diversity

Diversifying the workforce is the second strategy to overcome the labor shortage.

The manufacturing sector needs to do a better job showcasing all the advanced technology deployed by modern manufacturing operations to attract younger workers. Currently, the manufacturing workforce primarily consists of the over-40 male population, and manufacturing is not an attractive job prospect among millennials and GenZ, who prefer tech jobs.  The deployment of robotics and automation technologies will help attract younger workers.

Also, people with disabilities are a vast untapped talent pool.  Due to physical limitations, they typically cannot find suitable jobs in the manufacturing sector.  However, using robots and automation reduces the need for physical labor, creating new opportunities for people with disabilities. 

Apprenticeship

More manufacturers must participate in and help build vital apprenticeship programs, which is the third strategy.

The manufacturing sector needs to grow its pipeline of workers by supporting apprenticeship programs. Many manufacturing jobs do not require 4-year college degrees. Some manufacturers have partnered with local trade schools and community colleges to groom the next generation of workers. Increased robotics and automation technology deployment will require workers with new hands-on skills in shop floor setting. These skills are much easier to acquire through apprenticeships.  

Remote Work

The fourth strategy focuses on how the manufacturing sector can support remote work.

By addressing remote work options, the manufacturing sector can compete with the technology sector for workers. The increased use of digital, automation, and telepresence technologies in the manufacturing industry offers opportunities for people to do productive work from remote locations.

Some aspects of manufacturing jobs require a presence on the factory floor.  But companies must carefully examine the tasks and deconstruct them so workers can do some jobs remotely.

Remote workers can efficiently perform many tasks, such as inspection, quality control, process monitoring, simulation, and process design.  The manufacturing sector needs to take this issue seriously and empower its workers to work from remote locations effectively.

The Right Incentives

The fifth strategy is to create and offer the right incentives to attract new and retain existing workers.  Technology companies usually lead the way here with attractive incentive schemes appealing to younger workers.

Traditional salary-based compensation with standard benefits will no longer be adequate to compete in today’s fiercely competitive environment. Employees prefer to choose workplaces offering comfortable working conditions with opportunities for learning new skills.   They also value recreational areas, free meals, gym memberships, training to upskill, flexible hours and paid time off, and mentoring programs. Modern manufacturing companies cannot survive without using advanced technology. And they need to start thinking and behaving like tech companies to attract the best workers.

Robots with People

We believe that better employment opportunities would be created as companies add more automation, robots, and AI working alongside people to increase productivity and create better workplaces. As more robots come online, people tend to train and get certified into better roles as companies build more offices, warehouses, and branches that require more people.

But to address the critical issues of labor shortages in manufacturing, companies will need to tackle more than just automation.  Employers must resolve diversity, apprenticeship, remote work and offer compelling incentives to create future manufacturing environments that attract and retain new workforces.

If you’d like to learn more about the consequences of labor shortage in manufacturing, please check out our previous blog post.

If you’d like to explore how automation through innovative robotics and AI technologies can help your manufacturing environment stay competitive, please check out our whitepapers or contact GrayMatter Robotics at info@graymatter-robotics.com.  

SK Gupta, Chief Scientist, and Co-Founder, GrayMatter Robotics