Humans, Robots, and the New Future of U.S. Manufacturing

When you think of an Industry 4.0 or an advanced manufacturing career that involves robots, you may picture a factory setting filled primarily with men and barriers separating them from the robots. You may assume that everyone in the room has a Ph.D. You might think of the robot as being dangerous or perhaps being built to replace someone’s job. 

While there will always be important robotics jobs that revolve around formal research and development work, there are also new opportunities in robotics that are more hands-on, require less formal education, and are just as critical to our country’s resilience. As for our robot compatriots, they’re working alongside humans – women and men – and creating jobs. This is the new reality for careers in robotics for manufacturing. 

As the Chief Workforce Officer at the ARM (Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing) Institute, I work with our staff and our nearly 300 member organizations across industry, government, and academia to make these new career opportunities more accessible and help manufacturers realize their full potential by leveraging robotic solutions in tandem with human ingenuity. 

Through our collaboration and research over the past three years, we have defined the skill sets, competencies, and the pathways needed for these careers. In April, we will launch the nation’s first resource that will connect manufacturers, workers, and job seekers with education programs to develop skills for careers in automation and robotics: Each program included on the site aligns with our industry-vetted pathways. 

Manufacturers face compounding issues that limit their potential and prevent them from re-shoring their operations: a need to automate and a seemingly insurmountable shortage of workers willing and trained to work in manufacturing. These issues combined with fears of robots displacing workers and outdated perceptions about careers in manufacturing have put the U.S. in an exceptionally precarious position when it comes to our national manufacturing infrastructure.   

In a March 2020 study by the National Association of Manufacturers1, 25.8% of manufacturers said that they “had to turn away work and lose revenue opportunities due to the inability to attract and retain workers.” Without a concentrated effort to recruit new workers and solve the skills gap, a study by Deloitte estimates that as many as 2.4 million positions may go unfilled between 2018 and 20282.  

The past year has highlighted how fundamental manufacturing is to our nation’s security and economic stability. Without manufacturers, we can’t make the things we use every day like electronics, furniture, and clothing, let alone the materials needed in a pandemic like masks, gowns, ventilators, and vaccines. Those on the factory floor in our region and throughout the United States are critical to our nation’s resilience.  

In the same way that there are outdated perceptions about robotics careers, there are outdated perceptions about working in manufacturing. Often, people still view these jobs are being unstable and the work being dull, dirty, dangerous and often strenuous. In reality, automation has made manufacturing operations safer and has created new, well-paying career opportunities for people of all ages and all walks of life. Our work has helped under-employed people like single parents, previously incarcerated individuals, and veterans find rewarding, family-sustaining jobs and careers in manufacturing.  

There’s strength in the past. Our shared headquarters with Carnegie Mellon University and Catalyst Connection in Hazelwood sits beneath the framework of a former steel mill, paying tribute to Pittsburgh’s past while the work within drives a brighter future with opportunities for all. Our country is ready to move past outdated perceptions of manufacturing. We are ready to upskill existing workers, pave the way for future generations to take the reins, and strengthen manufacturing processes through robotic solutions.  

Not only are we ready to do all of this, but we must if the U.S. is going to realize its manufacturing potential again.   

I joined the ARM Institute in 2017 because I believe in our mission to create a future where people and robots work together to respond to our nation’s greatest challenges and to develop and produce the world’s most desired products. Our work makes robotics careers more accessible and ensures that the people who make our products reflect our diverse population. Robotics has the power to create opportunities for all populations, not just a few. 

Pittsburgh exemplifies the impact technology can have when it benefits the greater population. We’re a region that’s maintaining its identity as makers and builders while encouraging and developing the assets that make us a technology hub., As a result, the region has become a healthier place to live, new job opportunities are being created, and many of the world’s greatest technological advancements are born here.  

The Pittsburgh region embraces the collaboration between industry, government, and academia that also makes the ARM Institute successful and, though we are a national institute, we are proud to call Pittsburgh home. 

1 National Association of Manufacturer’s The Manufacturing Institute-BKD Small- and Medium-Sized Manufacturing Survey, February 2021 

2 Deloitte: 2018 Skills Gap in Manufacturing Study