Recently in Lawrenceville, Pa., roboticists sat alongside executives of some of the largest manufacturing companies in the country, as hundreds gathered to start a US$260mil (RM1.1bil) national initiative headquartered in Pittsburgh.
The matchmaking effort aims to dramatically increase robots and automation on US production lines. But a second piece of the initiative's mission involves a very different kind of engineering challenge: keeping and growing human jobs along the way.
"We are trying to create jobs because of the new technology and the new skills that will be needed," said Rebecca Hartley, director of operations for the Clemson University Center for Workforce Development in South Carolina.
"We have to do this by the numbers," she added. "How many credentials do we create? How many students do we have enrolled in those programmes? How many students do we have enrolled in apprenticeships? How many students are getting jobs? How many incumbent workers are getting new jobs because of new training?"
It's a tall order for Hartley, who was brought on as the chief workforce officer for the Advanced Robotics in Manufacturing Institute, a nonprofit affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University that in January won an US$80mil (RM347.4mil) grant from the US Department of Defense.
Questions loom over the effects automation has had on the American workforce a topic that for years has been the subject of debate among economists and policy-makers. While machines have allowed workers to become more productive and companies to lower their costs, the technology has also made some jobs obsolete.
Occupations across the spectrum are seeing increasing automation, but manufacturing is especially exposed to non-human help and vulnerable to job losses. One recent study found that as the average US manufacturing worker churned out 68% more products from 2000 to 2010, employers eliminated 8.2 million jobs that economists had expected to exist.
Companies and proponents of automation partly blame any job losses on what they call a persistent skills gap, and they look to training and education programmes to prepare a new generation of workers.
By tracking workforce needs on a national scale, Hartley and others hope the new ARM Institute can prove that improved efficiency can breathe life into manufacturing.
"We believe robots and automation technology are going to save and create jobs," said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based trade group of robotics developers.
A recent study from the group showed manufacturing jobs have grown by 900,000 even as a record number of robots were shipped. Burnstein said he likes to flip the script on the notion that robots are killing jobs: "What would happen if we didn't automate? How many jobs would be lost?"
A new way of learning
Hartley hails from South Carolina, a state that decades ago was home to a thriving textile industry. Like the steel industry collapse in Pittsburgh, she said, textile mills in the southern state shuttered amid an industry collapse beginning in the 1970s.
Memories of lost jobs and tough factory conditions have stuck with older residents, she said, and people tend to steer their children away from goods-producing industry.
"They don't want anything to do with manufacturing because it reminds them of something that's not sustainable," she said. "So it's a perception issue to really show them what advanced manufacturing is."
She has been doing that in her job with Clemson University, which, with funding from the National Science Foundation, has worked to design educational materials for two-year colleges and companies in the advanced manufacturing industry. Among other programmes, the group has developed virtual reality courses that give students a perspective into how new machines and equipment works.
At the ARM Institute, she said early talks with industry have revealed a desire to break down negative stereotypes and to show students the future of manufacturing is a wide open field.
Over the next five years, the institute plans to develop short-term certifications or credentials in robotics and automation, something that does not yet exist and that companies have sought for years, Hartley said.