Addressing manufacturing labor shortages

Manufacturing faces a major labor shortage that isn't going away anytime soon, which is forcing companies to adopt automation to fill this gap.

By Emmet Cole May 1, 2023
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Workforce development insights

  • Manufacturers’ biggest challenge continues to be attracting and retaining a quality workforce and the demographics indicate this won’t be going away as workers get older.
  • Manufacturers are turning to increased levels of automation and robotics to fill the gap and meet worker demand, but this won’t resolve all their issues.
  • While it won’t resolve their challenges, the increased use of automation is changing manufacturing and the workers who do join will be entering a world very different from the one they imagined.

There is no way to sugar coat the scale of the labor crisis in manufacturing: The latest National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Outlook Survey reveals that 75.7% of manufacturing leaders in the U.S. consider attracting and retaining a quality workforce to be the number one business challenge.

Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor & Statistics show that around 750,000 jobs are unfilled in the manufacturing sector –even though unemployment is at historically low levels. And Deloitte Insights predicts that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will remain unfilled in the U.S. alone by 2030.

“The situation is quite dire,” said Lian Jye Su, research director at market analyst firm ABI Research, noting that the problem isn’t confined to North American manufacturing.

“China also faces similar issues in keeping its factory workers. One report stated that more than 60% of Chinese manufacturing workers were born between 1975-1985 and that very few young adults are interested in manufacturing jobs due to higher salary expectations and education levels.”

If demographics are a guide, the labor crisis isn’t going away anytime soon.

“The manufacturing sector will always be expected to produce goods in a highly competitive, time-sensitive, cost-effective, and safe manner. Coupled with the ever-declining birth rate, the labor shortage in manufacturing will likely remain, and automation is the only way out,” Su said.

The latest NAM Outlook Survey also asked manufacturers about their plans and the number one response — at 65.3% — was “capital spending on new equipment and technological investments.”

The synergies between the industrial automation and manufacturing sectors have always been important to both, but the current labor crisis has intensified the sense of urgency and is a major driver of automation adoption.

Robots play a key role in automation growth

Analysts are saying it. Manufacturers are saying it. The industrial automation sector has always known it: Automation enables manufacturing companies of all sizes to address labor shortages while providing the traditional benefits and enhancements of automation from 24/7 availability and improved product quality through increased production and throughput.

A shortage of workers for manual unloading of packages from trucks led DHL to invest millions in a collaboration with Boston Dynamics on the development of Stretch –a mobile platform for automated case handling that comes with a 7 degrees of freedom robot arm, an adaptive gripper, advanced vision capabilities, and a set of high-capacity batteries to see Stretch through full shifts on a single charge. DHL plans to roll the robot out in several facilities in 2023 and across many more locations over the coming years.

The manufacturing sector is experiencing a critical shortage of machine operators too. Solving this particular problem led Rapid Robotics’ to develop the Rapid Machine Operator (RMO)—an affordable, automated machine tending system that the company says takes just hours to set up and can be quickly switched between different tasks.

“Traditional automation has many barriers that have kept manufacturers, especially in the small to medium category, from getting started. Lengthy deployment lead times, hidden integration costs, hefty upfront capital investment, lack of task flexibility –the list goes on. New robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) models can provide a holistic robotic workforce solution that circumvents these barriers,” said Jordan Kretchmer, CEO & co-founder of Rapid Robotics.

As “a true RaaS company,” Rapid Robotics offers manufacturers the opportunity to lease pre-trained, fully operable robots on a monthly basis, with 24/7 remote support, and regular updates from the cloud designed to improve robot performance, Kretchmer said.

“This shifts the burden of cost from a large capital expense to a manageable operational one. Put differently, rather than pay a massive upfront charge for the machine, plus the additional cost of service and a systems integrator to program the machine, RaaS presents a low-risk pathway to automation.”

According to a recent study of 300 manufacturing decision makers conducted by Rapid Robotics, more than 92% are actively hiring machine operators, and more than 60% need to hire at least six. Echoing the results of the NAM survey, Rapid Robotics’ study also found that two thirds of manufacturers increased their number of automated processes in the past year, and that almost 80% plan to increase their automation in the next 12 months.

Automation doesn’t just help to address labor challenges, it also gives companies the bandwidth to take on more business, says Kretchmer, citing the case of a Rapid Robotics customer that automated pad stamping and heat stamping applications, freeing human operators to focus on higher value tasks –a deployment that resulted in $60,000 in savings per year and $600,000 of additional business.

Looking to the long term

There is no quick fix for the deeper issues driving the labor crisis in manufacturing, says Joe Campbell, senior manager of applications development at Universal Robots.

“We’re seeing unemployment hit its lowest level since 1969, but more than half of young people today just aren’t attracted to jobs in manufacturing. At the same time boomers are retiring. As a result, we’re seeing hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs remain unfilled,” Campbell said.

Long term efforts that will take “years to put in place and produce significant results” are nevertheless crucial to the survival of U.S. manufacturing.

“For a generation that is sometimes said to ‘live’ on their electronic devices, the opportunity to program a cobot from a smartphone or tablet can be very appealing and an extension of what they are already familiar with,” Campbell said.

“We need to increase interest in STEM topics in schools to introduce students to the core technologies, and to build awareness of exciting, technology-rich career opportunities in the manufacturing sector. State and local governments see the value in reshoring U.S. manufacturing, part of that has to include the introduction of more training opportunities, including 2-year manufacturing technology programs, to shrink the skills gap and expand the manufacturing workforce.”

– The Association for Advancing Automation (A3) is a CFE Media and Technology content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,

Original content can be found at

Author Bio: Emmet Cole, contributing editor, Association for Advancing Automation (A3).