As with so many other industries, COVID’s impact on air travel was profound. Everything slowed down. Flights nearly stagnated. Between March and June 2020, employment in the air transportation industry fell by 25%. Airlines and manufacturers, like Boeing and their suppliers, scaled down to survive. Now that travel is picking back up again, companies are scrambling to hire people back, train them, and go from a near standstill to a sprint, making labor much harder to come by.
To sustain the old relationships of business and labor in a post-COVID world, people must think outside of the box. Instead of sticking to the traditional models, companies left short-handed in the wake of the pandemic can capitalize on a prime opportunity to automate gaps in manual labor, increase efficiency, and rehire fewer people with more specialized positions. This is industry 4.0—a tech-powered revolution with the potential to take affordable manufacturing anywhere, even back to the United States.
ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY HERE OFFSETS CHEAP LABOR THERE
When I was still a grad student, I took a job as a product manager at a company that outsourced to a production line in San Diego—one of my first interactions with manufacturing in this country. The facility had 10 different stations where people worked to assemble different bits and pieces that, ideally, resulted in the output of 100 widgets per day. By 11:00 a.m., I walked the floor to see each station’s output (recorded as ticks on a sheet of paper), expecting to see a little over 30 ticks for each station. While one station blew me away with an output close to 70, shockingly, the slowest had only three. Even if every other station on the line hit 100 by the end of the day, if the slowest had produced only three, then three would be the final output.
Back then, I knew labor-intensive manufacturing had no chance in this country. Sometime later, after my company purchased the San Diego company, one of the first things we did was to shift the entire assembly line to China. In the past 20 years, however, technology has thrust us into a world where automation can do more to concentrate the supply line as close to the end customer as possible. With enough automation to eliminate the costs and errors of labor, we could even bring competitive manufacturing back to the U.S.
NOTHING OUTPERFORMS MATURE MANUFACTURING
Mature automation and robotics can cut manual labor from manufacturing, helping businesses here in the U.S. offset the high efficiency and low cost in places like China. Without any automation, manual labor would carry out the entire manufacturing process: one worker completes a single task at a set station and passes it along to the next worker to carry out another. This may have been competitive a few decades ago, but technology is moving too quickly, and manufacturing needs to mature with it. The first level of maturity is to replace those people at each station with a machine. Suddenly, daily quotas of 100 could skyrocket to a couple thousand per station, offsetting the labor cost advantage low-cost countries like China have over the United States.
Once each station is automated, moving each part from one station to the next still requires labor, so the next level of maturity consists of replacing those people with robotics. I recently visited a new aviation facility and its local suppliers and noticed their manufacturing floors, like most, were crammed with too many machines, resulting in tight spaces that were difficult to navigate. With precision sensors, a centralized cloud network for communication, security, and safety protocols to respond in real time, plus a fast enough network to handle it, robotics could eradicate the need for manual intervention on those manufacturing floors. Even in the face of a labor shortage, U.S. businesses could improve output and efficiency by maturing to the second level of automation and assuming the lead in manufacturing.
THE NEXT GENERATION OF MANUFACTURING IS ENTIRELY AUTOMATED
Once work on the floor is automated, the final level of manufacturing maturity optimizes flow—more sophisticated automation than anything previously attempted—with less labor. AI and cameras can create factory floors that encourage productivity and higher yields. A weak production link holds everyone back; bringing people in to fix bottlenecks leads to downtime, which costs money. An efficient floor supervisor might have identified the issue before it became a problem. AI monitoring camera systems can achieve even more predictable outcomes.
Automating from input to optimized output, and getting all the robots and machinery in between communicating in real time, requires a robust network. Instead of people drudging through repetitive tasks that robots can do, the manufacturing floor needs workers in more fulfilling roles such as tech servicing, automation oversight, quality control, and of course, safety. Only a few milliseconds stand between a swinging robotic arm and a human body in its path—but a fast network’s speed and latency can ensure reliable security protocols. No one is currently at such a sophisticated stage of automation in manufacturing. That may take some time, but we have the tools to get there.
Industry 4.0 brings automation to every step in the manufacturing process. The pandemic demanded businesses slow down and then ramp back up again quickly, straining the supply chain. Importing from overseas has become less reliable and more businesses are trying to shorten the distance between their product and consumers. Automation allows businesses to hire and train fewer people while better equipping themselves to capitalize on this onslaught of demand. No universal blueprint exists for this new frontier in manufacturing, but new technology puts it within our reach.
Johan Bjorklund is CEO of Betacom, where he combines industry experience with a strategic and operational focus on building and growth.