The Top 3 Ways Manufacturing 4.0 is Adapting to an Aging Population

It is clear that there is a strong movement to bring manufacturing jobs back to the US shores. Why are manufacturing jobs so critical to the overall strength of the US economy? It is simply the manufacturing multiplier effect.  Depending on the industry, for every one direct manufacturing job created, a support service network of 2-3 service provider roles will also be created in supply chain or other services. Clearly, due to this multiplier effect, manufacturing matters a great deal in our economic well-being and our overall strength as a country.

There are many challenges for new and existing manufacturing businesses in today’s hyper-competitive global market.

The global search for talent is at the forefront of resource planning for many manufacturing businesses.

As unemployment levels continue to decline, another factor which is rapidly coming into focus for manufacturing executives today is the growing challenge presented by an aging available workforce. The statistics of this emerging challenge are highlighted below courtesy of (MAPI).

“The manufacturing sector appears to be disproportionately experiencing the ramifications of an aging workforce. In 2000, the median age of the manufacturing workforce—at 40.5—was 1.1 years above the median age of the total non-farm workforce. By 2012, this gap doubled, with the median age in manufacturing being 44.7 years versus 42.3 years for the total non-farm workforce.

The U.S. factory sector clearly needs an influx of young talent. In addition to focusing on educational needs, the nation must convince its university graduates and younger workers that there are rewards in a manufacturing career.”

Given the complexity of the demographic challenge and the reemergence of manufacturing in the US, how will companies deal with this additional challenge within their primary goal of increasing production and lowering costs?

I believe it will come down to three essential strategies:

  1. The deployment of automation, including collaborative robotics (“cobots”).
  2. The training and development of the next generation of manufacturing technicians.
  3. The intelligent and selective outsourcing of manufacturing and technical expertise.

Every successful manufacturer will need to have a business plan that utilizes at least two out of the three strategies to survive the new war for specific human resource skill sets.

Let’s take a look at all three strategies.

  1. The deployment of automation, including collaborative robotics (“cobots”).

Automation is not a new term and robotics have been playing a significant role in manufacturing for decades. Formerly, only well-capitalized, large companies, with unlimited resources and very repetitive fixed location manufacturing work cells could afford the capital investment in industrial robots.

The combination of the new dynamic of scarcity of labor, along with the 4.0 unemployment rate and the emergence of collaborative robots, is a game changer.

The flexibility and low cost of a smart cobot has made every small to medium manufacturing business potently more competitive and in turn, profitable.

In addition, the inherent safety in deploying smart collaborative robots, which are designed to work alongside the current workforce with the newest robotic technology, is eliminating many tedious and potentially unsafe practices in manufacturing operations.

The smart collaborative robots are relatively lightweight, mobile, and have the flexibility to move from one work assignment to another. Just as a pneumatic screwdriver is an enhancement to the manufacturing environment, a collaborative robot is designed to assist, not replace a human. Collaborative robots are generally simpler and smarter than more traditional robots, making them cheaper to buy, operate and maintain. The ROI on a cobot is quick, which is another key factor contributing to the extremely high forecast for growth in collaborative robotics.


  1. The training and development of the next generation of manufacturing technicians.

Even with automation and robotics, there is no easy or practical way to replace the highly motivated and experienced workers that are retiring every day from the US workforce. The baby boomers are moving on and their departure is creating a large brain drain that is already being felt in the engineering and maintenance staffs of manufacturers all over the country.

This challenge will be met with internal training and on-demand sharing of technical resources that are required to meet short-term demand. We are seeing a reemergence of apprentice programs to teach new practical, technical skills that are in short supply in today’s market. The skills sets required range from maintenance of hydraulic and electromechanical equipment to programming for automation or factory processes.

  1. The intelligent and selective outsourcing of manufacturing and technical expertise.

In addition to training and apprentice programs, the new gig economy is filtering down to the manufacturing service sector where a number of service providers are offering on-demand productivity engineering.

This service gives a manufacturer the freedom to choose to outsource technical expertise on a project or contract basis, rather than fully staffing their manufacturing department with engineers in order to fully deploy automation or robotic applications and systems.

To deal with the labor crunch we are currently seeing, the third strategy involves taking an element of manufacturing, either a subassembly or final assembly, and assigning it to a flexible outsourced partner. This approach has both short-term and long-term benefits depending on the individual company’s preference. For example, rather than add human resources that are difficult to find and train in the short term, a company may prefer to handle a short-term spike in demand by turning to contract manufacturers who have expertise in design and in building their end product.  This enables the company to meet the peak demand without additional staff members.

In other cases, manufacturers are simply interested in a having a contract manufacturer and engineering partner who can fulfill the long term needs, from R&D to production, and enable the organization to focus their resources on sales and marketing. This Outsourced Flexible Manufacturing Service fits both a startup and established companies that are looking to reduce their operating costs in order to be more competitive and profitable.

In summary, the future of US manufacturing is bright, but filled with choices. No one answer will meet all of our long-term demographic challenges. The solution relies on the innovative use of both technology and human resources. We look forward to the challenges that lie ahead. It is a rough, rocky, uphill road, but it’s going to be fun!

To find out how we can help you meet your manufacturing challenges with RoboticAutomation or Flexible Outsourced Manufacturing Solutions, please contact me directly at [email protected] 

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