Believe it or not, increasing factory automation could actually be good news for creating U.S. jobs.
There was a sliver of good news last week for Americans concerned about the flight of electronics manufacturing to Asia. IPC, a trade group that represents printed circuit board manufacturers and other electronics firms, reported that electronics manufacturing operations with a total value of at least $2.5 billion are expected to be "on-shored" (brought back to North America) in the next three years.
The IPC study put some numbers around what anecdotal evidence has been suggesting for years—the companies that are bringing manufacturing back to the U.S. cited quality control as the primary reason.
As far as creating jobs in the U.S. and our North American neighbors are concerned, the return of $2.5 billion in electronics manufacturing that had been shifted overseas beats a sharp stick in the eye. But it's not possible to know how many other electronics manufacturing operations will be offshored over the same three years. Net-net, more manufacturing (and jobs) may end up leaving the U.S. than coming back in.
Another trend in the spotlight last week might also bode well for U.S. manufacturing and job creation (though it might not seem like it). A New York Times piece published Saturday detailed how the rise of factory automation throughout the world is changing manufacturing.
It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the use of robots to replace factory workers could actually have an upside for U.S. workers. But the principle reason that so much manufacturing has fled the U.S. and other western nations for China and other emerging economies is that the people there were willing and able to do the work for less money than workers in the U.S. and Europe. As more human labor is taken out of the equation, offshoring becomes less and less attractive, especially in light of concerns about quality control.
A factory where most of the work is done by robots won't create near as many jobs as one where the work is done by people. But a robot-filled factory in the U.S. will create more American jobs than an automated or un-automated factory in China.
As George Leopold pointed out (link here), there are also indirect links between technology innovation and job creation. Even if robots are doing the heavy lifting, the infrastructure and supply needs of a thriving factory translate into jobs.
It's natural for those of us who work for living to snarl at the idea of machines replacing people on the factory floor. But if the factory floor jobs in question are not going to be in the U.S., anyway, this trend could actually be good for the U.S. economy and U.S. workers. Tech workers may certainly need to acquire new skills, but more products built in the U.S. more efficiently will spur funding for innovation and other products, ultimately creating more work and improving U.S. competitiveness.