There’s a Robot at Your Door; Are You Ready to Open It?

Challenges: Leadership, Workforce, Read

Posted by Christine Schmitz

Estimated Reading Time : 4 min.

imagesThis week’s episode of MakingChips was all about the guys sharing their personal stories and insight on family business succession planning, but succession is not limited to family businesses. The truth is, every manufacturing business leader needs to have a process for identifying and developing new talent to take the reins as employees in vital positions leave, retire or, in some cases, even pass away. 


Succession planning involves identifying and developing internal people with the potential to fill key business leadership positions within the company, which all sounds pretty straightforward. However, as the “boomer” generation retires, there is some underlying skepticism in handing over manufacturing operations to a younger generation that may not have followed the same hands-on steps toward becoming a metalworking craftsman. The idea of taking a business based on making precision crafted parts and turning it over to a generation educated in the digital age can cause some serious anxiety.


So what can we, as the current leaders within the manufacturing industry, do to be proactive in building this bridge from the present to the future?


Industry Week Magazine has regular articles on the importance of apprenticeships. The most recent, Engaging Manufacturing's Next Generation Through Full Contact Innovation, spotlights the BOTS IQ program, which offers students who are undecided on what to do after high school the opportunity to use their intelligence and technical skills to design, build, and test robots.


As students conceptualize their own ideas, create CAM drawings, choose metals for their robot, and assemble tools necessary for building, they also develop skills they aren’t being taught in the classroom.


Bill Padnos, Workforce Development Manager, National Tool and Machining Association, and one of the BOTS IQ program panelists, says, “If [students] have never walked into a manufacturing facility and have never touched a machine, how are they going to think about this as a career?”


Apprenticeship is a hot topic in any skills-based industry. Lucky for us, there is also a wealth of good information to encourage us and help us all, as leaders in manufacturing, to come up with new and innovative ways to attract young people to our profession. But is this enough?


What if it’s not all about trying to compensate for a younger generation who is no longer is guaranteed the opportunity to take Shop or Robotics as a class option in high school? What if we, as leaders, need to bridge a gap of our own?


Three years ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released a white paper, Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, laying out a common global agenda for transforming education, advancing the economy, and facilitating transition to a new world of work. The paper particularly focuses on the effects of automation and digitalization on industries such as manufacturing, where the work has traditionally been hands-on.


Two interesting data points from the research showed: some credible estimates put the risk of automation as high as half of current jobs in our sector, and that, in the digital age, even occupations that are not automatable will go through significant change.


In summary, the WEF research showed on average a third of the skillsets required to perform today’s jobs will be wholly new by 2020. Guess what? That’s next year.


The three main takeaways from the World Economic Forum’s research were:


  1. Globalization and technology are accelerating both job creation and destruction.
  2. Education and training systems have remained largely static for decades and are not keeping pace with these shifts.
  3. Outdated cultural norms and institutional inertia create roadblocks for half of the world’s talent.


So, what can we, as manufacturing leaders, do to facilitate change?


In a February 2019 article released by Burrus Research, Changes in Manufacturing: How Will Different Generations Adapt?, author Daniel Burrus notes that “in the past, we all knew what manufacturing was, and safely assumed we knew where it was headed. But ongoing technological advancements are uprooting that sedentary perspective, and the change curve of manufacturing is now an upward climb.”


Burrus addresses many of the issues we discuss on the MakingChips podcast each week, particularly how, for many “boomers” a career in manufacturing meant working at a company until you retired, doing repetitive and often dirty jobs, and success was measured by the paycheck you got at the end of the week. Whereas younger generations entering the workforce have an entirely different outlook that challenges past definitions of success. For example, “success” for millennials has a lot do with how much they love what they are doing.


In addition to forming apprenticeship programs and instituting modern business practices, Burrus also suggests we, as leaders, can do something else: change our outlook.


As the WEF, Burrus, and many others report, those back-breaking, repetitive jobs that laid the foundation of our industry are increasingly being taken over by machines. But we don’t need to view it as being completely negative. Rather than joining in with some of our older colleagues who spend time lamenting how many jobs being lost to robots or how being dependent on technology makes us all weak and lazy, we could try to see things in a new light.


One thing the younger generation has over us is that they do not seem opposed to radically new ideas. Rather they seem to embrace change as progress.


Maybe they are on to something good?