Robotics to drive manufacturing growth

Manufacturing is returning to the U.S., but not in the form of clanky, man-powered assembly lines. Tomorrow's operations will likely be capital-intensive production that relies heavily on industrial robots. Their human coworkers will be skilled engineers and technicians who can manage such complex machines. Semi-skilled line workers, on the other hand, are unlikely to be in demand. A wide compensation gap between U.S. and Asia still gives offshoring the advantage for human-intensive production.

Industrial robotics
The recent upswing in manufacturing is due, in part, to the use of robotics in capital-intensive manufacturing, according to Bloomberg. The efficiency and precision of robotics, in particular, is making some operations more profitable. Since 1990, the cost of industrial robots has decreased 50 percent compared to human labor, Bloomberg reported. Coupled with the fact that robots can operate long hours without the need for breaks and without decreased efficiency, many industries are finding them advantageous.

Aerospace manufacturing, in particular, is among the industries using automated machines. Boeing's airplane production facility in Everett, Wash., is beginning to integrate robots on the floor line. Inspired by BMW's highly advanced facility in Munich, Germany, Boeing is using the new machinery to catch up with their peers.

"We now know to build airplanes in a very traditional method," Jason Clark, 777 director of manufacturing, told the Puget Sound Business Journal. "But when it comes to automated systems, a lot of other companies already have gone through a learning curve in adapting automated processes. We want to take advantage of that."

Robotics have already helped many firms enhance their production. However, what gives Boeing a particular advantage, Clark explained, is the company's ability to program them.

Automated machines need to be trained to undergo precise motions, especially when it comes to delicate tasks like painting airplane parts. Without the intricate effort of production experts, engineers and computer scientists, robots can fail to live up to their potential.

Search for talent
Skilled workers are making automation possible in industrial settings. But unfortunately, such talent is becoming scarce. In 2008, only 4 percent of U.S. bachelor's degrees were in engineering, compared to 34 percent in China, Bloomberg reported. As baby boomers begin retiring from their position, finding educated U.S. workers could be a challenge.

Many firms will likely enlist the help of engineering recruiters. These services give employers access to a talented labor pool and help streamline the hiring process.

Robots may be leading the production boom, but only with the guidance of a knowledgeable workforce.