Humans need not apply? The impact of automated manufacturing on workers

It’s been nearly 60 years since manufacturing first opened its doors to industrial robots. It all started with Unimate, a robotic arm that poured liquid metal into die casts at General Motors’ plant in New Jersey. It demonstrated that dangerous and boring tasks could be completed with consistent speed and precision – and it was a sure-fire hit.

In the years that have followed, technology has transformed how all kinds of things are made. These days, we don’t just have robotic arms – we also have computer-aided design, programmable logic controllers, human machine interfaces, 3D printing, and so much more. And, as technology becomes increasingly sophisticated, manufacturers will continue to look for new ways to harness it – in the pursuit of greater efficiency, innovation and productivity growth.

One example of how organisations are harnessing technology is the Changying Precision Technology Company. As manufacturers of mobile phones, they decided to replace 90% of their human workforce with robots; leading to a 250% increase in productivity and an 80% drop in defects. This is an extreme example – it’s unlikely that many other organisations will pursue such a dramatic strategy in the near future. However, it certainly demonstrates the significant, life-changing impact that automation can have on the manufacturing workforce.

Realigning the talent pipeline

The growth in automated manufacturing has fundamentally shifted the type of skills employers need. Technology is increasingly replacing cognitive, manual and routine tasks; leaving people to carry out non-routine tasks and more fulfilling roles. Demand for traditional production skills is diminishing; while thousands of new specialist roles have been created to service and manage automated technologies. As a result, the talent pipeline needs to be realigned, to ensure the sector is equipped with the skills it will need in the future.

Education initiatives to strengthen and build the talent pipeline are important. To power automated technologies, manufacturers will need more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills. These are already in short supply, so more needs to be done to attract larger numbers of young people into these careers. As a sector, we need to improve the perception of what it’s like to work in a STEM-based role; and we need to work with education institutions to ensure the training and development they deliver is aligned to real business needs.

Reskilling and upskilling the workforce

Education initiatives are only one part of the answer though, and may take many years to bear fruit. We also need to take immediate action to fast track the upskilling and reskilling of existing employees. This will enable employers to address today’s talent shortages and anticipate the demands of tomorrow.

Today, 2.7 million individuals in the UK are directly employed by the manufacturing industry. As employers, we have a responsibility to ensure we give these workers all the opportunities they need to adapt their skillset to changing business needs. In essence, we need to nurture their ‘learnability’ – the desire and ability to quickly grow and adapt one’s skill set to remain employable throughout their working life.

Nonetheless, the reality of implementing such a mindset can be challenging. After all, in the past, employers had more time and resources to develop their people. That’s often not the case anymore. They want to see faster time to value and better value for money.

As a result, it’s extremely important that organisations understand their employees’ learning style inside out. Doing so will ensure they invest their limited time and resources in supporting their employees in the right way. After all, if a worker learns most when they’re hands on with a specific task, it’s probably not the best idea to sign them up for a classroom-style training course.

That’s why ManpowerGroup launched the Learnability Quotient. Developed in partnership with Hogan X – the new analytics division of Hogan Assessments, the leading provider of personality assessment – the Learnability Quotient is a web-based visual assessment that provides insight into an individual’s motivation and style of learning. This information helps employers to make decisions around the right reskilling and upskilling opportunities to implement within their workforce.

As automated manufacturing continues to grow, helping people upskill and adapt will be the defining challenge of our time. But the future of manufacturing doesn’t need to be a battle of human vs. robot – if action is taken now.


To find out more about our expertise in manufacturing recruitment and workforce planning, visit manpower.co.uk/manufacturing or email us at manufacturing@manpower.co.uk