Artificial intelligence (AI) will certainly impact manufacturing jobs. Rather than making people obsolete, I believe that AI will make many manufacturing jobs more meaningful. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that while 64% of manufacturing work has the potential to be automated, only about 5% of all occupations consist of activities that are fully automatable. This implies that, in manufacturing, AI is more likely to change your job than eliminate it. AI can free up time for machine operators, manufacturing managers, supply chain managers and sales associates to innovate in real and practical ways.
Machine operators think about how things work, diagnose and fix problems. When AI is used to prevent equipment failure, the machine operator’s job can shift from fixing machines to improving the manufacturing process. Operators can spend more time looking for better ways to use existing machines or testing entirely new ones.
Production managers think about how to lead, motivate, and inspire their people. When AI is used to prevent production defects, staffing problems, and safety risks, the production manager’s job can shift from leading teams through resolving problems to leading teams through testing improvements. The entire production team can spend more time trying new ways to organize both themselves and the shop floor.
Sales associates, customer service agents, and supply chain managers think about how to engage and serve customers. When AI decreases the time that it takes to discover and act on innovation, manufacturers can afford to try more ideas from the customer-facing teams. The sales and customer service teams can spend time testing custom products with customers. Supply chain managers can spend more time customizing (or even rethinking) relationships with suppliers.
The transformation of jobs requires investment from employers. Companies must be willing to take an active role in training employees and creating a culture that supports innovation. Companies will need to build organizational structures that allow employees greater flexibility with their job roles. There must be a willingness to research and borrow best practices from outside the company.
AI can transform everyday manufacturing jobs from mostly executing tasks into something much more valuable. The key is to see the enterprise as a network of people supported by digital systems, rather than a digital system supported by human operators. AI becomes a way to refactor small parts of the business so that systems are easier to use and people have more time create. In manufacturing plants powered by AI, practical innovation can be a bigger part of everyone’s job.