AI Won’t Replace Manufacturing Workers – It Will Supplement People. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as a poorly understood technology. How else to explain the gulf between its fans who see AI improving how we do everything, and its detractors who see AI as dangerous and giving too much power to machines? 

a group of people looking at each other

Artificial intelligence (AI) is emerging as a poorly understood technology. How else to explain the gulf between its fans who see AI improving how we do everything, and its detractors who see AI as dangerous and giving too much power to machines? 

In manufacturing, we have been modelling some of the impacts of AI and the reality is it will be neither a silver bullet nor a doomsday technology. We see AI as assisting manufacturing firms to move to a higher order of ‘knowledge work’ – working smarter, not harder – while also reasserting the primacy of some of the production team member roles. These are roles that were once supposed to be removed with CAD-CAM and robots, but which endured and became more important with advanced manufacturing. 

We have already seen major technology come into the industry and not replace human beings. So, with AI we are using the tech to enhance the people. As with any technology, we train team members in Power BI and AI potentiation tools and empower our ADROIT process software with AI where it makes sense. 

AI in manufacturing

But let’s start with the context in which manufacturing AI will emerge. The Australian Treasury’s Intergenerational Report 2023 (IGR) shows us an economic pattern over the next 40 years in which several themes predominate. 

The population will continue to age, with the proportion of people over the age of 65 moving from 17% now to 23% in 2063. Along with an ageing population will come reduced labour force participation, dropping to 64% in 2063 from 66% now.  

And while Australia’s GDP growth is strong compared to other developed nations, the Treasury forecasts Australia returning to the lower (and declining) OECD average over the next four decades. 

We see AI mitigating these economic trends

We see AI mitigating these economic trends. The first is the ability of AI to take mass processing work out of the hands of humans. This will not remove jobs from the production line, because manufacturing is already controlled by computers running algorithms and sensors. 

However, many of our production team members are getting on in years, and they have skills that AI cannot replicate. I believe we will use AI to support these skilled members of our team, taking away the mundane monitoring and analytics side of manufacturing and allowing them to value-add with skills and experience. 

We make many grease compounds on a bespoke basis for a variety of industrial clients, and the blends and the assessments of the grease compounds still require an experienced human. Where AI really helps us is to keep these valuable people in the workforce as they mature and help them to increase productivity without working longer or harder. 

a man standing in a room
AI can assist in the STEM-reliant, R&D side of Harrison Manufacturing, allowing for greater frequency and accuracy.

I also see AI adding to the STEM-reliant side of our business. We have an R&D division that attracts a younger, university-educated cohort and they, too, can use AI to run tests and scenarios at greater frequency and accuracy. This does not replace these knowledgeable team members – it allows them to move to higher value-add tasks where we produce innovation and new IP. Across the whole economy, it gives an innovative country like Australia an advantage. 

Finally, AI is most powerful at the pattern-based and process work. That does not mean the production team members, but the back-office people who work in legal, accounting, finance and HR. This process work is being automated by AI, but it does not spell the end for the value-adding, decision-making people; they will use AI to improve their management results. 

Can AI support individuals?

These observations in my company have been researched more broadly, for instance, in the Harvard Business Review piece entitled Is Your Job AI Resilient? The authors, David L Shirer, Julian Emanuel and Marc Harris, quote research findings that: 

Cognitive abilities (such as information ordering and memorisation) have higher AI exposure, meaning that AI is able to perform a task as well as or better than a human, while creative- or strength-based abilities (such as originality, oral expression, or explosive strength) have lower or no AI exposure. The more social interaction and empathy that a job requires, the less exposure it has to AI, and the more physical labour is entailed in a job, the less exposure it has to AI. “

So, taking AI not in terms of its theoretical threat but from the perspective of what it can actually do, we see it supporting individuals, improving workplace productivity, and assisting in Australia’s economic growth.  

AI can be treated as a positive improvement, enhancing workplace productivity and assisting in economic growth.

I believe the demographic shift in developed nations, including Australia, will guide where AI is used. The developed world’s workforce is ageing and moving towards retirement, but informed by two forces: 

  1. People’s expectations for their “retirement” have changed, influenced by shocks such as the GFC, COVID and a lack of retirement savings commensurate with their longevity. As a result, many middle-aged people want to reduce their hours but remain active in the workforce. 
  2. Looking beyond our Baby Boomers, demographic forecasts show a diminishing workforce with a significant growth in demand from NDIS, while areas such as education and preschool decline as fewer young people move through.

AI can keep our experienced people in the workforce, and by taking up the process and memory work, it leaves humans to design, deduce and decide, which is what any good machine should do in the workplace.