What Is the Manufacturing Skills Gap, and How Do You Close It? Part I

The skills gap in manufacturing has been dominating headlines and conference session topics as the issue moves from prediction to reality.

Laminated handwritten "Help Wanted" sign in window of ice cream and yogurt shop in tourist town-979060-edited.jpeg

Part I – The Effects of Retiring Workers

Now that the baby boomers are retiring in large numbers and there aren’t enough people with the skills or interest to fill open positions, the skills gap is here. This series of blog posts examines causes and solutions.

Three main causes contribute to the skills gap:

1 – Retirement of older workers (the baby boom generation)

2 – Lack of skilled workers

3 – Lack of desire to work in manufacturing

Skilled Welders and Machinists Are Leaving the Workforce

Welding was an early indicator of the looming skills gap. Ten years ago, the American Welding Society issued a fact sheet about the welding shortage. A Feb 2007 update stated, “the average age of a welder is in the mid-fifties, with many approaching 60 years old. It is estimated that more than half of the industry’s highly trained workforce is nearing retirement, creating a potential shortage of more than 200,000 skilled welders by 2010.”

Welding isn’t the only area affected by the skill shortage. A 2016 Bloomberg article reported that almost half of Boeing’s Seattle-area machinists are 50 or older. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, machinists are one of the occupations adding the most jobs (projected 2012-2022). This is not the time to be losing skilled machinists.

Replacements Are Hard to Find

Multiple reasons contribute to the lack of skilled workers available to replace the baby boomers. Post-baby boom generations stayed away from manufacturing and the trades. The 2011 Deloitte/Manufacturing Institute “Boiling Point” report on the skills gap in U.S manufacturing says: “Exacerbating the issue is the stubbornly poor perception of manufacturing jobs among younger workers… among 18-24-year-olds, manufacturing ranks dead last among industries in which they would choose to start their careers.”

Apprenticeship programs in the United States decreased, leaving fewer opportunities to learn the necessary technical skills. As well, the required skills changed from when the baby boomers entered the work force. Not only are specialized skills like welding required, but soft skills like teamwork are increasingly necessary, as well as the ability to work with computers and information technology.
solve the skills gap in manufacturing

What Can Be Done?

To prevent an abrupt shift from having a full-time skilled worker here one day, gone the next, consider offering flexible arrangements like a transition to part-time hours, consulting work, or contract work as in-house trainers and mentors.

Whether their reasons are due to finances, a desire to extend employer healthcare benefits or just a desire to still be part of the work force, retirement-age employees may be more open to delayed retirement options and flexible arrangements than you might think. Even delaying retirement by a year or two can make a big difference, and give you the time needed to recruit and train new workers.

How can automation help fill the gap? Watch for an exploration of this question in the next post in this series.

5 Jobs Robots Can Do That Humans Don’t Want

Headlines about robots taking jobs are everywhere, but what exactly are those jobs, and do humans even want them?

Entering Unsafe Radiation Areas

The need for a non-human to enter dangerous radiation areas became a high priority after the damage to the Fukushima nuclear plant in 2011. Sciencemag reports that the maximum radiation levels discovered would have exceeded a human worker’s full year safety limits after exposure for less than one day. Military-grade robots had to be deployed to venture inside.

In the following years, development of robots to step over debris and access damaged, contaminated areas has increased. A Wall Street Journal video shows HUBO robot creator Professor Jun-Ho Oh explaining that they created the robot to deal with a radiation contaminated area.


Hazardous Mining Jobs

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has tracked 76,000 deaths due to black lung disease since 1968. Breathing coal dust or risking being trapped in a collapse, cave-in, or a flooded mine is not a desirable job for a human.  Robots are welcome in mining to reduce hazards and to aid rescue operations

To be fair, not all mining jobs are so hazardous, and some less-hazardous jobs are also being automated.  As reported by MIT Technology Review, mining companies are taking advantage of automation to haul iron ore and drill. Just like other industries, automation eliminates some jobs while creating others such as maintaining the new equipment.

Low Wage Farm Work

US News reports that the specialty crop farm industry wants investments in mechanization and technology to offset labor shortages. Leaving the political debate about immigrant workers aside, what makes farm jobs unattractive? The New York Times cited a Georgia experiment using parolees to work farms that resulted in parolees quitting due to “intolerable working conditions.” The Bloomsburg Businessweek article Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs presented low wages, and back-breaking physical demands as reasons why the unemployed don’t want to pick produce, along with an attitude against doing farm work.

Picking soft fruits has been a challenge for robots, but new robotic strawberry pickers are already in field testing.


Deburring and Other Repetitive Actions

Deburring is an excellent example of a repetitive, time-consuming, fatigue-inducing process prone to human error.  While flat parts are relatively easy to deburr using automation, curved pieces typically required traditional manual deburring. With robot end effectors becoming more sophisticated, they can adjust force to deburr rounded surfaces.

Dull Retail Tasks

What’s worse than searching for someone to help you find something in a retail store? Being the person on the floor who constantly has to answer the same questions over and over. With autonomous retail service robots, customers can “ask” the robot, receive a reply in their choice of languages, and even follow the robot to the location of the item in the store. Lowe’s is using the LoweBot in select stores, and reports that the robots allow employees more time to offer specialty knowledge and expertise.  By leaving the routine searches and repeated questions to robots, human workers have higher job satisfaction.


Transition Time

Automation is not going to go away, and jobs with a shortage of available or willing workers will be prime targets for robotic solutions.  Ideally, people will benefit from safer, more interesting work. But, as with most technology changes, the transition will likely not be easy for everyone to accept.

compare 34 collaborative robots

Fanuc Releases a New Collaborative Robot: The Small Green Fanuc

Last year Fanuc launched a collaborative robot that has altered the previous perception of what a collaborative robot is. In fact, the CR-35iA (or as I like to call it: the Green Fanuc) was bigger than any other collaborative robot and was 3x time stronger than any other cobot on the market. Now Fanuc is launching a smaller version of this robot: The CR-7iA. 


Fanuc is known for being one of the biggest robot manufacturers on the planet, though they are relatively new in the collaborative robot market. In fact with only one year of ‘shopfloor’ experience, they don’t have a lot of collaborative robots out in the wild. However, the fact that they are investing in R&D for releasing new cobot models only means one thing: Collaborative Robots is the future.

What I suspect is that the Fanuc CR-35iA even though it has had a lot of good hype around it, still has a large footprint and high payload. Perhaps end users are still a little skittish about putting such a large robot unfenced next to their workers, so that they preferred to choose smaller robots even though they are only able to carry lighter parts. Don’t forget that if you are carrying a heavy weight, you want your robot to be a little slower than with a small load. As you probably recognize, a heavy weight will cause more damage on impact than a smaller weight for a same speed. So in terms of safety, some users might prefer using a smaller robot to achieve a task. And this is where the CR-7iA comes into action.

Green Fanuc Family is Getting Bigger

When we visited IREX 2015, we saw that Fanuc was coming out with this smaller version of the CR-35iA. In fact, there were three robots talked about here: 2 robots with a 7 kg payload (one with 717 mm reach and the other with 911 mm reach) and a tiny version with a 4 kg payload and a 550 mm reach.


With smaller robots, Fanuc will be covering a broad spectrum of robot payload and reach. This means that with one robot manufacturer, end users will be able to achieve almost any task they want.

Fanuc can easily develop new collaborative robot models, since they are simply adding a protective cover and force torque sensor at the base of one of their regular robots… and presto you have a cobot. Their development time is thus a lot shorter than other manufacturer that would have to start from scratch in terms of hardware.

How Fanuc Collaborative Robots are Different from Other Robots?

To my eye the biggest advantage of using a collaborative robot from Fanuc is if you are already used to the robot software and have a bunch of Fanuc robots on your workfloor. You will then simply transfer your programming and integration knowledge from the one robot you have to whatever new robot you add to your robot park. However, if you are a new robot user, programming a robot for the first time can be a real headache. But these new cobots provide the usual collaborative robot hand guided, easy and simple programming.

Both green Fanuc robots are super sensitive to impact, because of their sensitive force torque sensor, which is located in the base. In fact, since you will enter your payload for each robot motion, the robot will detect force variations and will stop when a certain force has been reached. Furthermore, you will be able to restart the robot with the simple push of a button.

The robots are also protected by an external skin that will cover pinch points and sharp edges which will also act to reduce the force of an impact. The robot comes with a Fanuc teach pendant and controller. I understand that a bunch of options, such as iVision, will be available to fit the new robots.

I want one, Where can I see it????

According to Manufacturing Global, the robot will be shown at the MACH Show in April. It looks like a bunch of prototypes are scheduled to be shown in different shows and I am expecting the official release by the end of the summer. We will keep you posted, stay tuned.

This is very good news for the robotic industry, I’m always thrilled to see new robots coming out, specifically for the collaborative robot market. And to see such a huge company come out with collaborative robots is even better. In fact, this means that cobots have a promising future and that even though it is still a small market in terms of global production, it will potentially boom soon!

How to Shop for a Collaborative Robot: The Definitive Guide