- Associated Press - Monday, August 17, 2015

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - When it comes to cabinet making, automation and robotics could potentially do all the sanding for his business in the future, John Swedeen says.

It could handle all the staining, too, all the glazing and other different techniques that give his customers the worm holes and cut marks and other distressed looks they demand from his products, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1L6r1M2 ) reported.

So yes, as president of StarMark Cabinetry in Sioux Falls, Swedeen figures he could purchase the expensive technology his competitors use to finish their products and eliminate a third of his 662-member human workforce in the process.

But here’s why he won’t: “It produces a finish and a cabinet that looks like it was machine finished,” he said. “The problem with that is my value proposition in the marketplace is predicated on producing a hand-crafted product. My customers don’t want machine finished.”

In a community and state where manufacturing labor is critical, few discount the role that automation and technology could and will play in the future. But where opinion diverges then is whether such things as robotics will eliminate human workers or simply result in a shifting of workforce to other labor needs.



For decades, manufacturing was always able to meet its employee needs with young men - and later women - who were pushed off the farm by agriculture’s own technological revolution. Manufacturers ended up with a wide selection of skilled workers who knew how to weld and fix machinery and operate a blow torch.

But as farm families began to shrink, communities experienced a much narrower selection of people interested in production work. As a result, manufacturers simply can’t find enough welders or cabinet makers or other assembly line workers today.

Some suggest automation will fill that gap. Martin Ford, a Silicon Valley software developer and author of the book “Rise of the Robots,” thinks it could end up doing much more than that.

“All the evidence is that technologies are just going to get better and better and better,” Ford said. “As they do, they’re going to encroach on more of the work people do. The question is, ‘How soon will that happen?’ My guess is it will be a 10 to 20-year time frame when it becomes really obvious. I know others who are really smart and working directly in these technologies, and some of those people say it could happen within five years.”

The South Dakota Labor Department is already predicting a decline in a number of manufacturing-related occupations over the next decade. Drilling and boring machine tool setters, lathe and turning machine tool setters, milling and planing machine setters - all are projected to need less workers between now and 2022.

In many cases, it will be technology like Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) machines taking their place. Swedeen added two such machines at StarMark in the last five to six years to cut panels and do routing, moves that meant he needed 12 less humans performing that work.

“But we don’t refer to them as job eliminations,” he said. “These people were good people. They were simply located to other functions in the facility.”

That’s a pattern Craig Peters at Southeast Technical Institute expects to see more of in the future. Companies will retrain or simply move workers to other needs areas. And as technology becomes more complex, they’ll have to hire even more skilled laborers to manage and maintain those machines.

Beyond that, much of the state’s manufacturing sector does custom building, which involves unique processes that don’t make mass automation economically feasible, said Peters, director of academic support at STI.

“If you have a big company like General Motors that makes millions of the same part, then you replace people with machines,” he said. “When you make a thousand parts, a thousand isn’t enough to justify having a system to replace people.”

Maybe not today. But the cost of everything eventually seems to come down, and the same will be true with workplace automation, said Matthew Miller, assistant professor of computer science at Dakota State University in Madison.

He sees South Dakota’s movement to more automation as inevitable. As that happens, companies will have to hire more highly trained employees to work with the technology. But there likely will be workforce reductions as well, Miller said.

“You might replace 10 people with six or seven workers who are younger, maybe more agile and not so ingrained in the traditional mindset that existed with their predecessors,” he said. “I would think there would be fewer people needed to do some of the jobs. Now whether or not those people stop working, I don’t know. They might end up retooling and doing something else with their lives. It’s really hard to predict.”

That retooling and shifting of employees might work for a time, Ford said. But he sees a day in the not-so-distant future when automation becomes more ingrained and the opportunity to shift diminishes greatly.

“I don’t dispute what they’re saying about moving people into other jobs,” he said. “My question is, ‘Do you expect that opportunity will persist?’ “

For now, that answer is simple for Swedeen. Even with eliminating a dozen jobs through the automation he now uses, he still can’t find enough human workers.

“This is a people business,” he said. “You saw the people. . they’re touching every cabinet three, four, five, six times times as it goes down the line. We need them. The machines aren’t going to eliminate that.”

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Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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