M2030 Perspective: More Robots, Better Jobs. But How?
Advanced robotics could create better manufacturing jobs, increase productivity, and help solve workforce shortages by 2030. But there’s no guarantee.
● How can U.S. factories increase robot adoption from 10% to 50% by 2030?
● Automation will inevitably change workforce roles and create different challenges.
● Three key guidelines for positive-sum automation.
At a family-owned factory in northeast Ohio, business is good. The floor is bustling. Rows of lathes and mills are spitting out a variety of precision aerospace components. Their specialty, like many medium-sized manufacturers in the region, is to produce high-mix, low-volume machined parts. But there’s a problem.
The factory could be growing much faster. It has the demand to add more machines. It could even add another shift. But it can’t find the people. In surveys and interviews with manufacturers, this has become a common refrain: we’re ready to grow, but we can’t recruit and retain talent fast enough.
The workforce challenge started long before COVID. Between 2010 and 2019, job openings in manufacturing more than tripled. And projections suggest the tight labor market for production work is here to stay. Given the aging manufacturing workforce, the Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte anticipate that the manufacturing labor shortage will only worsen.
Looking ahead to 2030, with policymakers and multinationals eager to invest in the future of American manufacturing, how can manufacturers of all sizes overcome the workforce bottleneck and grow?
Is Automation the Answer?
Some factories are betting on automation as the answer. The idea is simple: if you can’t find people to do the job, train machines to take over routine tasks. The vision might be that by 2030, manufacturers can substantially increase their output without growing their workforce – all by adding new technologies.
In our research with MIT’s Work of the Future Initiative studying how dozens of factories deploy new technologies and adjust their workforce, we’ve seen that this vision just doesn’t compute. To achieve what we call “positive-sum automation” – technology adoption that improves productivity as well as flexibility – firms need to ask more of their workers. Adopting new technologies doesn’t solve a manufacturer’s workforce challenges. It just changes them.
Imagine a factory can’t find a machinist, so they buy a robot. In principle, the robot could load and unload parts from a machine, freeing a machinist up to operate more machines at once. The robot certainly promises productivity gains, but they aren’t guaranteed. In the short term, the robot will require more labor and more skills to be deployed on the factory floor.
“Adoption of automation technologies has been comparatively low at U.S. factories. Approximately 10% of U.S. plants have any robots at all – and only half of those report using robots at any scale.”
Before the robot can operate efficiently, the production team will need to re-engineer the process of tending the machine, and program the robot to perform the task as efficiently, or more efficiently, than an operator. It’s a process of trial and error that could take months of tweaking and pulling the firm’s leaders away from their day jobs. Even if the factory calls on external help from an integrator to program the robot and fine-tune the process, they will need to build up the internal skills to fix the robot when it goes down – or reprogram it if the process changes.
The Robot Gap in U.S. Factories
Adoption of automation technologies has been comparatively low at U.S. factories. Only one in three factories report having specialized software. Approximately 10% of U.S. plants have any robots at all – and only half of those report using robots at any scale. One explanation for low adoption is the complexity and capabilities it takes for firms to integrate these technologies and make them work. Consider programming a collaborative robot to tend a machine. The task is well within the capabilities of current commercial robot systems. However, one way or another it will often take 3x or even 10x the investment of the robot hardware to make the system functional and robust. One large firm with a team of engineers can implement and scale the system across dozens of machines in three months. Another small firm without an engineer has to plan for the effort on the margins, tasking a machinist without prior programming experience to spend a year teaching themselves to be a robot programmer and integrator. It’s a risk for a firm to make that kind of investment.
Even among manufacturers that adopt robots and use them to automate tasks on the floor, workforce challenges don’t disappear. They just change forms. Studies from a variety of countries show that when firms adopt robots, they end up hiring more people and becoming more productive and competitive.
Jobs Are Changing
At more automated factories, there are more jobs – and the jobs are different. In our work, we’ve seen that when firms adopt new technologies, it changes what it means to be an operator, or an assembly worker. New skills are required. The cadence of the job changes. One study shows that the impact of automation can extend beyond the production environment. At the firm level, it shows that more automation is associated with fewer middle managers.
In short, automation has the potential to create better manufacturing jobs. This is important in a tight labor market, particularly when the wage premium for manufacturing work has vanished over the past four decades. In 1960, an American without a college degree could make 40% more on average than they could outside a factory. But by 2020, that worker without a college degree was making only 2% more in manufacturing. Alternatives in retail and logistics have become far more attractive.
“What would it take to increase robot adoption to 50% of American factories by 2030, and ensure that the factories with robots are recruiting their new workers into high-paying jobs?”
Back at the Ohio aerospace supplier, creating better jobs and more flexibility has motivated them to automate. Several years ago, they invested in a collaborative robot, which they call Jeff, to load and unload a lathe in the back corner of the factory. The owner summarized their approach, roughly: “we know we need to offer higher wages to recruit more workers. And we can’t pay higher wages unless we automate.” Although it was a struggle at first to keep the robot working and train their workers to support it, the factory has stuck with it over several years and plans to scale up new technology elsewhere on the floor.
We can imagine U.S. manufacturing in 2030 with automation enabling increased productivity as well as higher-wage, higher-quality manufacturing jobs attracting a new generation of manufacturing workers. But it’s no guarantee. What would it take to increase robot adoption to 50% of American factories by 2030, and ensure that the factories with robots are recruiting their new workers into high-paying jobs?
Our research suggests three keys for firms to achieve the positive-sum automation for which they’re striving:
1 Invest in shop floor entrepreneurs to identify and exploit automation opportunities. When firms ask for feedback from their workforce, not everyone is going to participate. Typically, there are only a small share of workers who are prepared to implement new ideas and process improvements. These individuals are typically close enough to the routine processes that they know how the floor operates, but removed enough from the line that they can understand how the manufacturing systems work. We see enormous potential in these shop floor entrepreneurs if their managers give them the resources and the time to experiment with new technologies.
Since deploying automation technologies takes time and trial-and-error, these entrepreneurs need the runway and the risk capital to succeed. We frequently encounter manufacturers without a clear ROI calculation when they purchase a new piece of equipment. This isn’t necessarily a problem. It can be an opportunity for firms to enable their most creative and resourceful personnel to find new applications for a technology that they might not have imagined before purchasing it.
2 Redesign line work to increase flexibility and unleash creativity. Managers have long expected patience and precision from their production workers charged with routine tasks. Operating a machine or working in assembly can be a high-stress environment where every break or distraction is costly. But automation can make this work more flexible and lower stress, which can in turn, attract more people.
The goal of automation is not always to increase the productivity of an individual worker – one worker supervising more and more machines – but also to give individual workers more time to identify ways to make the process better. In our research, we’ve seen the introduction of new technologies associated with more opportunities for bottom-up process improvement when line workers have the flexibility to step back and analyze a process when they’re not stuck repeating it. The next generation of machinists can have more space to innovate if their employers empower them to do so.
3 Use software to squeeze the most out of hardware investments and measure progress. Generating benefits from automation goes beyond setting up a robot to load and unload a machine. That robot and the machine it’s tending can be most productive when it’s connected to software that measures its performance and can allocate work most efficiently between the equipment and capabilities that a factory has. For most people, scheduling is an extremely challenging job. In hospitals and in air traffic control environments, research finds that doing these tasks well often requires decades of experience, and only a small share of people can thrive.
Even at the factories we visit with the most advanced automation in equipment, we still see gaps in their software system. Of course, they might have a sophisticated ERP that helps determine what needs to be made, or even dashboards on whether machines are hitting their targets, but rarely is this software system integrated in a way that can accurately spot inefficiencies and measure productivity improvements in each section of the factory. Factories investing in software and software expertise are building the infrastructure and the capabilities to make advances in automation, flexibility, and job quality possible.
A Spirit of Experimentation
Successful adoption of robotics and automation can promote higher wages and higher quality manufacturing jobs and improve a firm’s competitiveness. However, the research shows that these gains cannot be achieved through capital investment alone. The success stories require firms and workers to bring a spirit of experimentation and openness to redesigning work and training for new software skills. M
About the Authors
Dr. Ben Armstrong is Executive Director and a research scientist at MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, where he co-leads the Work of the Future initiative.
Dr. Julie Shah is the H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics and leads the Interactive Robotics Group of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence, at MIT. She is also co-lead of MIT’s Work of the Future Initiative and a member of the MLC’s Board of Governors.