Over the last few decades the manufacturing industry has been undergoing constant change in an effort to keep up with technology and economic conditions. Some recent changes on this front have been “Smart Manufacturing” and advanced sensor robots that can “see” and “feel”.

The technologies used for the implementation of “smart manufacturing” or “smart production” span a wide spectrum of domains. They are often referred to as Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, i.e., the combination of a sensing/actuating device with a communication network (wired or wireless) and a software application to move, read and interpret data.

The causality between IoT and the transformation of manufacturing was underlined in a recent roundtable between executives at Robert Bosch and McKinsey experts on the Internet of Things and the Future of Manufacturing. According to McKinsey Partner Dr. Markus Löffler, “the Internet of Things has already set in motion the idea of a fourth industrial revolution—a new wave of technological changes that will decentralize production control and trigger a paradigm shift in manufacturing.”

The increase in technology involved in automation and robotics is making them more flexible and versatile. Today, robotics technology allows humans to work alongside robots that can pick parts based on what they look like rather than whether it has been set up properly for the robot.

These two technologies — machine vision/3D laser scanning and tactile/force control — integrated with robot workcells demonstrate that there are many opportunities for operational improvement that can directly impact a manufacturer’s bottom line through improved efficiency, reduced waste, improved safety and lower maintenance.

The question that arises from talk of flexible and versatile robots is, what does this mean for jobs? The answer is in the difference between onshoring and offshoring. In the early 1990s, there was a rush of manufacturing business leaving the US for countries with lower wage rates while other manufacturers began adding automation technologies as a way to increase productivity and lower costs. As time moved on, and wages began to rise overseas, automating the manufacturing processes at home became a better solution.

While the changes in automation technology and “Smart Manufacturing” might seem like they are replacing labor in some ways, these technologies and techniques are helping to keep manufacturing, and jobs, in the US and also brings different jobs to the manufacturing industry than had traditionally existed before.