How Automation Will Transform Industries and Employment


John W. Kennedy, Ph.D., Chief Executive Officer of New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program (NJMEP), has had a long and varied career that has allowed him to be part of several industries, but more importantly he’s been able to witness the growth of automation as it has changed and become increasingly sophisticated. We talked with Kennedy as he was preparing for his keynote address at Rockwell Automation on the Move (RAOTM), a free two-day educational event, May 17-18, in East Rutherford, New Jersey. We asked him about his perspective on automation, in general, and on the future it holds for us all.
Turtle & Hughes: How do you see automation changing in the enterprise?
Kennedy: I’m continually surprised because everything is changing. Vehicles are getting smarter, sensors and software are changing, and it’s getting easier to put different kinds of automation in place than just a few years ago. I see companies that would have fought automation as recently as five years ago embracing the technology and the results it brings to their operations. And it’s not just the large companies. Small manufacturers of all kinds are bringing automation into their facilities to lighten their workloads and add efficiency.
I visited a bakery that bakes buns for McDonald’s restaurants recently. When I was there five years ago, they were essentially a manual operation and would not consider opportunities to automate. When I visited the bakery this time, I found they are completely automated. I also recently visited a very large new QuickChek grocery store where I watched their receiving operation. When a truck came to the dock, the driver unloaded their delivery to a conveyor. Various sensors, scanners, and cameras identified the items and routed them along the conveyor to their proper destinations. When the load was complete, a receipt printed on the local printer, which the driver took with him as he left. No store employees were in the loading dock – they didn’t have to interrupt their other tasks. The manager could see the operation via cameras but the whole delivery was automated. It was pretty impressive and a great example of automation used to increase productivity.
Turtle & Hughes: What has changed that has made automation such a force in so many industries?
Kennedy: Sensors and robotics, in general, are becoming more affordable, so small manufacturers, assembly plants, and warehouses are able to take advantage of the technologies. We used to think of Just in Time (JIT) delivery as critical, and that hasn’t gone away. In fact, with the increased pace of the supply chain, JIT has become even more important. Being able to apply automation that removes delays and makes things safer for workers helps to tighten the timing.
Turtle & Hughes: What do you see as the effects of automation on the future of our workforce?
Kennedy: There’s a lot of talk about automation taking jobs away from people but I take an opposite view. The human brain is the most advanced computer in existence. I was in the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts recently and read commentary about when the first wood drill was invented. It was so efficient that it reduced the number of men needed to drill a hole from four to two. People saw that as the end of employment. So nothing is really new. Technology progresses and we do more.
Today, manufacturers are desperate to find trained people. They all say they need more trained people to run Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines, even though those are largely already automated. So, the workforce is changing rather than being replaced. The most important change needs to take place with parents advising their children on their career path. For many, a college degree may not really be the best option. Our schools are teaching in a traditional education form, and that simply will not work any longer.
Despite some popular impressions, the United States is still in the top three in terms of global manufacturing and we may rise to number one again. We need to start early to expose people to manufacturing opportunities. I see things like makerspaces and STEM education doing some good, but the missing link is that as an industry we are not educating people and speaking up as we should. We need the old talented machinist, but now they also need to know how to program so they can fix the brain and the machine.
Kennedy will appear at the RAOTM during a special hospitality event on Wednesday, May 17, at 6 p.m. Click here for more information and to register.
Turtle & Hughes is an Authorized Distributor of Rockwell Automation in: New Jersey: Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Hunterdon (East of Route 31), Middlesex, Monmouth, Morris, Ocean, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex and Union. New York City: Bronx, Manhattan and Queens. New York State: Dutchess, Kings, Nassau, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Suffolk, Sullivan, Ulster (South of Route 28, excluding the township of Kingston) and Westchester.

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