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People still pivotal as technology drives next 25 years

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Baxter the robot packages boxes in the manufacturing plant at The Rodon Group in Hatfield. Look
for the use of robots to rapidly increase throughout the manufacturing sector over the next 25 years.
Baxter the robot packages boxes in the manufacturing plant at The Rodon Group in Hatfield. Look for the use of robots to rapidly increase throughout the manufacturing sector over the next 25 years. - (Photo / )

Relax.

Robots will not completely take over the world of manufacturing. But a look ahead to the next 25 years shows that big changes are on the way.

Automation will continue to drive vast improvements in everything from productivity to safety while alternative energy will gain more attention as a way for manufacturers to become even more efficient.

The focus for manufacturers also will shift from mass production to emphasize customer service, delivery and quality of the finished product, all with an eye on continuous improvement. Also, look for technicians to take on greater, multiple roles in manufacturing.

New types of jobs, such as robot maintenance, will emerge and direct manufacturer-to-consumer selling models could take hold over the next quarter century. More workers than ever before will be programming and operating computerized equipment, and the days of dozens of employees performing manual, hand-operated assembly work will disappear.

It will be a time of change. Possibly profound change.

“Generally, I think you are going to see a quantum leap in technology across every level of manufacturing,” said Michael Araten, president and CEO of The Rodon Group, a manufacturer of plastic injection molds in Hatfield.

As an example, robots will have more speed and precision, including those such as Rodon’s Baxter robot. The company acquired this American-made device several years ago for about $27,000. While Baxter can do many functions, such as precise packing, Rodon Group is pushing to have it perform assembly work.

“Those kinds of technologies will take over manufacturing,” Araten said.

Automation has been a big deal over the past 25 years and will be even more so over the next 25, said John Quarmley, president of Highwood USA in Tamaqua, a manufacturer of synthetic products that include furniture, building trim and fencing.

With each person on the shop floor required to do more, more tasks need to be automated, Quarmley said.

“Productivity levels are expected to continue to improve,” said Peter Rittenhouse, director of supply chain for the East Coast for Nestle Waters North America, which has a bottling manufacturing plant and a distribution center in Upper Macungie Township.

Automated processes also bring reductions in on-site accidents and worker deaths, trends that should continue as fewer workers are needed to move or operate heavy equipment or perform repetitive movements.

“We are starting to envision a place where people don’t die at work,” Rittenhouse said. “There are clearly some productivity gains, but also I think there are some real safety gains. I’m very positive on the future and, I see continued improvements.”

Manufacturing also will see a greater emphasis on alternative/renewable energy.

“We will have much less reliance on fossil fuels than we do today,” Araten said. “It will obviously benefit manufacturing but society as a whole.”

Instead of using prime materials, more manufacturers could be driven to reuse as much materials as they can, Quarmley said.

“I’ve seen in the plastics world [that] the gap between prime and scrap is closing in price,” he said. “There’s certainly a drive to use more and more scrap.”

Rittenhouse, who has been in manufacturing for 30 years, 23 of them at Nestle Waters, said technicians will play greater multiple roles, becoming responsible not just for production, but the quality of product and making sure customers get what they want when they want.

Part of this is because of the growth of automation, which will still require employees at factories for highly technical jobs such as monitoring, maintaining and fixing robots.

“My experience has been – more robots, the more high-paying jobs,” Rittenhouse said.

The need for high-tech skills, particularly for those in science, technology, engineering and math, will continue to increase, Araten said.

“People with modest skills used today in manufacturing will almost be outdated,” Quarmley said.

K’NEX Brands, a subsidiary of The Rodon Group and also based in Hatfield, makes K’NEX toys, which are designed to build STEM skills in children.

“I think there will be a shift in the kind of workforce we need,” Araten said.

Similar to other historical times of technological advancements, workers grew to adapt to these changes – and Araten expects something similar in the next quarter century.

Workers in manufacturing could be fulfilling different roles, whether it’s designing software applications in a studio, working in alternative energy plants or performing maintenance on robots. New types of jobs in manufacturing will emerge, driven by technology growth.

“Because of the complexity that the technology brings, there is a lot of jobs with that,” Araten said.

Quarmley said his customers that have factories in Mexico and Canada are having a tough time finding employees for their factories, and automation appears to be the only solution.

This need will result in more workers who can maintain, troubleshoot and operate the equipment, rather than having skilled labor do that work, Quarmley said.

Continuous improvement will continue to remain crucial for manufacturers.

But in the future, according to Rittenhouse, four elements will be critical for manufacturers:

(1) Product.

(2) Quality of product and its ability to meet expectations of consumers.

(3) Cost.

(4) Delivery expectations of that product.

“Those trends have all ramped up during my career,” Rittenhouse said. “In most businesses today, you can’t survive unless you have all of those things covered.”

On the sales side, there will be fewer traditional sales, distributors and retail sites, according to Quarmley.

“More and more, it will be direct selling to consumers,” he said.

Much like the model of Tesla Motors selling cars direct to consumers, Ford and other auto manufacturers could follow suit, a move that could trickle down to small-appliance manufacturers, Quarmley said.

“I don’t see why that wouldn’t be a reasonable thing to do,” he said.

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Brian Pedersen

Brian Pedersen

Reporter Brian Pedersen covers construction, development, warehousing and real estate and keeps you up to date on the changing landscape of our community. He can be reached at brianp@lvb.com or 610-807-9619, ext. 4108. Follow him on Twitter @BrianLehigh and read his blog, “Can You Dig It,” at http://www.lvb.com/section/can-you-dig-it.

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