Robots are on the rise, and that's actually good for Cleveland manufacturing workers

When most people think of robots, they first think of Transformers’ Optimus Prime, C-3P0 and R2D2 in “Star Wars,” HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” or even Rosie the Maid from “The Jetsons.”

While these are fictional characters out of futuristic dramas, the reality is real-life robots are among us—changing the face of manufacturing. And humans are needed to fill the jobs that help make the robots work.

“There is definitely a trend toward technology in the manufacturing environment,” says Adam Snyder, managing director of MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network’s Sector Partnership. “At the same time, there are between 1,500 and 2,000 [manufacturing] openings in Cuyahoga County, and those jobs are top to bottom.”

Matthew Fieldman, vice president of external affairs for MAGNET, operates a collaborative robot that eliminates boring, repetitive, and generally low-skilled jobs, letting people focus on more challenging work.In Northeast Ohio, the challenge is filling the evolving needs of the manufacturing scene, which comprises 20% of the gross regional product and employs close to 300,000, according to Jacob Duritsky, vice president of strategy and research at Team NEO. As automation technology gains ground in manufacturing, humans and robots are finding new ways to coexist in the workplace.

The Amazon fulfillment centers in Euclid and North Randall, where robots and humans work together to execute day-to-day operations, are recent examples. Or Cleveland Whiskey, where a MAGNET-created robot cuts precise one-inch wood squares for flavoring. Or the Cleveland Clinic, where automated guided vehicles deliver supplies, food, linens, and medications throughout the Main Campus.

Many worry that robots are taking over the world—at least the manufacturing world—and will eliminate the need for human talent. Though the skill sets are evolving, the demand for skilled workers is actually rising.

“Jobs are changing,” says Matthew Fieldman, vice president of external affairs for MAGNET. “Will robots replace humans? Not any time soon. We’re getting more and more sophisticated in what we want, and robots can’t keep up. We’re ninth in the world in the percentage of robots to workers.”

Cuyahoga County has 1,500 to 2,000 manufacturing job openings.The changing climate of the plant floor

While Duritsky says automation is more prevalent in some areas of manufacturing—citing machinist positions as an example—industry is becoming high tech on the whole.

A quick internet search on any job board shows many manufacturing jobs in automation, Fieldman says. For example, the Ohio Means Jobs website lists almost 70 open positions in the region, with titles like “automation engineer” and “automation technician.”

These jobs require computer programming, math, and logic to implement, maintain, and service the automated systems. This is the face of modern manufacturing. Fieldman cites demand for a new breed of employees who know coding and programming but also can repair and maintain the machines.

“That’s the next skill set—a mix of using your mind and using your hands—and we’ve never seen that before,” he says. “It’s not something people know about yet. This is the future of the local economy. We have to have the ability to fill these jobs because this is something Cleveland can compete in with these talented jobs.”

Careers in manufacturing, experts point out, run the gamut—from welders to industrial psychologists specializing in workforce automation—and automation only increases efficiency.

“You can almost make your [own] job,” says Duritsky. “The industry is growing, new technology is growing. [Even] small manufacturers and machine shops are adding automation sensors because it makes them more productive.”

People helping robots

Automation doesn’t necessarily reduce the human workforce, Fieldman says. MAGNET, a nonprofit consultancy that does everything from market research to product development, has developed several automation components for Cleveland-area companies that increased productivity without eliminating a single job.

MAGNET built a robot for Cleveland Whiskey that cuts wood into perfect one-inch squares, so the engineers can do their true work.For example, Fieldman describes a MAGNET project to help Cleveland Whiskey create unique flavors in its whiskey. The award-winning distillery slams its bourbon against one-inch-square pieces of wood to create the taste of a whiskey that’s been aged for seven years.

The engineers were spending a lot of time physically cutting the wood, Fieldman says. “Cleveland Whiskey was employing really good engineers to do really neat work, but this was a tedious part of their job,” he says. “They were using a saw and cutting the wood by hand in an alley. That’s not the best use for people in such [positions].”

So MAGNET built a robot for Cleveland Whiskey that cuts the wood into perfect one-inch squares, freeing the engineers to do their true work. Cleveland Whiskey also now sells the used wood, which used to be discarded, as an additive to barbeque smokers, Fieldman says.

MAGNET also helped Avon-based meat packaging company Flavorseal improve its meat-seasoning process with automation, Fieldman says. “They had a mindless process of shaking salt and pepper and other condiments on meat,” he says. He wouldn’t elaborate on the top-secret technology but added, “After the new machine was installed at Flavorseal, the workers were moved into higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs on the production floor.”

In fact, Fieldman says, automation often creates opportunities to move up in a company, not out, and the work can be more satisfying. “These are the dark, dirty, and dangerous jobs, and [we’re] replacing these jobs with automation so these people can do more skilled jobs and make more money at it,” he says. “People don’t enjoy jobs where their brains aren’t engaged.”

Learning opportunities

Finding skilled talent has been a struggle throughout Northeast Ohio’s 120-year manufacturing history, Snyder says. As skills change, training is one solution. Another is getting young people interested, as 20% to 30% of Cleveland’s manufacturing workforce is 55 or older and will retire in the next decade, he says.

Many companies offer on-the-job training at every level. “There are a lot of entry-level roles where the manufacturers like to invest in skill development,” he says. “Or take a 10- to 12-week machining certification program and jump a little higher.”

Math skills are particularly important in a lot of modern manufacturing jobs, Duritsky says. “There are 17-year-olds making college decisions. We’re trying to find that intersection of what [they are] passionate about and what the demand is," says Duritsky. "These are the kind of conversations we should be having. Forty percent of Kent State University students are undecided, and no one is having that conversation. There’s a lot of work we could do.”

A simulated manufacturing environment and inspections and quality control at Cuyahoga Community College’s Manufacturing Technology Center of Excellence.Cuyahoga Community College’s Manufacturing Technology Center of Excellence is doing that work, taking a proactive approach with workshops, training, certifications, and even associate degrees in manufacturing and operations engineering technology (automation manufacturing).

“We have seen demand from both existing companies and demand from the industry, as well as emerging industries,” says Alicia Booker, vice president of the Manufacturing Technology Center Of Excellence. “There’s a diversification in the industry and expansion.”

AI is rapidly growing, Booker says, attracting students. And despite the name, AI will never replace humans. “We’re always going to need a person,” she says. “We’re not replacing humans, now we have human-robot interactions working alongside [each other].”

The Internet of Things and flexible electronics also interest students, Booker says. “Now it’s a matter of teaching kids where the work is starting to go, but also where the work is going to be in the future,” she says, adding that their Nuts & Bolts Academy summer camp engages kids in these subjects.

And through Tri-C’s Youth Technology Academy, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District High School Robotics team in 2016 won the first Robotics World Championship in St. Louis.

“It’s exposing these young people to what they’re going to need in the future, or even in their careers,” she says. “This is the first generation we have of kids growing up never knowing a world without automation.”

The region must look at robots and automation as an asset in an industry that continues to grow and provide jobs, Fieldman says. With the right on-the-job training or secondary education classes, experts say we should welcome the robots—after all, they’re here to stay.

“It’s not replacing people,” says Fieldman. “It’s augmenting the workforce, allowing companies to be more sophisticated than ever before.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.