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Robots Vs. CNC Machinists: Are we gonna’ lose?

You have to admit: It would be super ironic if robots took our jobs because…well… didn’t they give them to us? I mean where would a CNC machinist be without a CNC machine? The tools of our work might not think for themselves, but they already save an incredible amount of time and boost shop output. If the machines that we create and update to help us ultimately help us right out of a job description, it would be hilariously tragic… like a Tarantino movie. 

We looked into the real technologies that might lead to this grim lights-out-factory future in five to ten years. Let’s see how we fair in our own private war against the machines.

Machinists: Five-to-Ten Year Outlook

First we need to discuss all the technologies that will be able to perform and in some cases outperform the tasks we do today. For all the robots on Youtube doing backflips, sketching art, beating Grandmasters at chess and Starcraft II champions, you would think that the level of sophistication is already on the cusp of replacing humans at almost anything. But reality is decades behind the marketing. 

Fact is, robots are prohibitively costly and still more limited than humans, generally. They are not the threat right now. Other technologies are. According to World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, there are four technological “drivers of change.” They are:

  • Ubiquitous high-speed mobile Internet
  • Artificial intelligence
  • Widespread adoption of big data analytics
  • Cloud technology
  • (Robotization is not a significant driver now, but it will become one in many industries)

Most companies discuss plans or current investments that utilize some or all of the first four drivers, but less than one-third discuss robots (Future of Jobs Report). Focusing on what’s in front of us, we can see how these four technologies are working together to change CNC machining. 

MachiningCloud is a great example of cloud adoption, and not only because they sponsor this blog. The cloud app significantly reduces the time it takes to source tools. In the same way, CNC Cookbook’s G-Wizard Editor, and many like it, speed up coding time. Even Computer-Aided Design (CAD) was thought to adversely impact the number of drafters on the shop floor. These technologies save time while increasing productivity and reducing errors. Meanwhile as new tools have developed and become widespread, the number of machinists in the United States has increased from 434,000 in 1998 (Occupational Outlook Quarterly, 2000) to 468,600 in 2016 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). Despite technology businesses have hired more machinists to produce more than ever before. Technology has been less impactful on machinist jobs than the economy as a whole.

Job outlook for machinists and tool and die makers through 2026 is projected to be lukewarm as usual: not up or down. Tool and die makers will decrease, while the rest of the industry will grow slightly. The explanation: “…advances in automation, including CNC machine tools, should reduce demand for tool and die makers to perform tasks, such as programming how parts fit together, that computer software can perform.” In other words: more of the same.

If you talk to business leaders now about their workforce plans, you get mixed news that also backs up this kinda not kinda anything trend. Almost half of employers do expect to reduce some of their full-time workforce by 2022. However, more than one-third (38%) expect to “re-skill” and “upskill” their workforce for more productive tasks. This suggests that job security and opportunity for advancement will be measured by your ability to learn and use new technologies as they become available.

What about the Trade War? Will US Manufacturers Hire More Machinists?

If China and US can’t reach an agreement on trade, and even if they do at this point, we can expect more manufacturers to open new shops on US soil. However, “reshoring” provides an opportunity for employers to build more automation into their facilities. Research by World Economic Forum suggests that reshoring activities increase demand for skilled workers but not for repetitive, lower skilled work. 

Microshops Are a Source of Hideous Growth

While larger employers struggle to hire and pay more machinists, there are more opportunities for skilled machinists outside of their work. Just look at the CNC machines market, which is growing by 7% per year. Who is buying all these machines? Not your employer… Hobbyists. Who buys their work? Consumers. Who designs their work? Professionals. 

Etsy grew by 20% in 2018 to sell $4 billion in goods (Etsy Annual Report 2018). That is huge in comparison to workforce expansion. Machinists are killing it on this platform. Look at this 3d STL model for a snowman on Etsy that has over 150 5-star reviews. 

Look at that! It’s hideous but also strangely alluring, isn’t it? Like Smithers in a jumpsuit wearing almost “nothing at all…nothing at all.” At $5 a pop, how much has the designer earned? 

With so many CNC machines out there, demand for good models is increasing. So why put your eggs into someone else’s basket when you can get out there and sell your own stuff? 

What Can Machinists Do to Earn More Money? 

Generally, technology reduces repetitive work and increases demand for unique, thought-based activities. This is definitely true in CNC Machining. Over the next five-to-ten years, we will see a continuation of the same trend. Employment will stay roughly the same while businesses retool and reskill the workforce. On the shop floor, you might see some workers elevated to greater roles and responsibilities while others fall behind. That will have less to do with their current role and more to do with how much they learn. 

The workers who can learn new skills will be able to command better pay and increased security as their productivity rises. But workers who perform repetitive tasks and who do not learn new skills might watch their paychecks stay the same or even, in some cases, disappear. 

It might be tough to hear, but at least technology is something you can proactively exploit. 

As always, we’re here to bring you the latest information about CNC Machining. We’ll continue to address emerging tools and how you might best exploit them to stay ahead in the years to come.

MachiningCloud is a one-stop, industry-wide resource that gives you the ability to fast-track the process of creating tool assemblies. Our application reduces the time it takes to find, select, and assemble tools by 75% or more, so try MachiningCloud today. It’s easy to get started. 

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