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Manpower Still Essential for Auto Industry

APICS CEO

Friday February 2, 2018


In movies, on television shows and even in the news, robots sometimes are portrayed as the enemy of the worker because they threaten to take away people’s jobs. In the auto industry, however, this is proving to be untrue, as large manufacturers opt to balance the work of both humans and robots on their assembly lines. Why? Honda says it’s because humans can still handle jobs that robots can’t.

“We can’t find anything to take the place of the human touch and of human senses like sight, hearing and smell,” said Tom Shoupe, chief operating officer of Honda’s Ohio manufacturing unit, in a recent Bloomberg article.

Ever since Honda started making the Accord at its Marysville, Ohio, factory in 1982, humans have been an integral part of the assembly line. Today, humans work in tandem with robots to efficiently produce the cars. The company recently built a new weld shop, where nearly 342 robots make and paint the Accord’s redesigned metal body. The Marysville facility also recently invested in a robot — which the workers nicknamed G-Smurf because it is big and blue — to lift rear suspensions up into the bottoms of the cars. After that, human workers handle the final assembly, installing motors, wheels and interior-trim components.

Even G-Smurf can’t do its job without the support of humans. The facility assigned two human workers to install six bolts and four brackets on each suspension before the robot installs the finished part. 

“The robot isn’t smart or dexterous enough to reach in and around the suspension to place the bolts where they need to go,” Bloomberg’s John Lippert writes. “The workers must use their left hand for some bolts and their right hand for others, since they’re operating in a tight, awkward space, and they have to visually inspect their work — all in the span of about 40 seconds.”

Honda’s integrated approach to auto assembly seems to be working. The Accord won the North American Car of the Year award at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit last month.

But Honda is not alone in this balanced approach. Toyota also acknowledges the value of humans on the assembly line. The Japanese automaker only uses a few robots at its Georgetown, Kentucky, facility to assemble its Camry sedan. Chief Production Engineer Mark Boire told Bloomberg that the facility leadership does not plan to add more robots any time soon. Similarly, in 2016, Mercedes-Benz announced plans to de-automate and instead use humans to install the customizable options available for the manufacturer’s luxury cars.

Nevertheless, some research contradicts the car makers’ examples. A December 2017 McKinsey Global Institute study reports that as many as 375 million workers around the world might need to change professions by 2030 because their roles will be taken over by automation. Further, the World Economic Forum forecasts that, of the 1.4 million U.S. jobs that will be changed by automation in the next eight years, about 57 percent are held by women.

Tesla Cofounder, CEO and Product Architect Elon Musk has spoken about plans to use robots to do all the company’s auto assembly and staff humans only to attend to the robots. He says robots will handle the work more quickly than humans can and calls speed “the ultimate weapon” in production.  Despite this interest in speed and automation, the automaker built less than 2,500 Model 3 vehicles in the last quarter of 2017. This represents only a fraction of Tesla’s goal of building 5,000 vehicles a week. By comparison, Honda sold more than 320,000 Accords in the U.S. market alone last year. 

Because of Honda’s current success, Shoupe doubts that the company will phase out human jobs any time soon. Instead, he’s concerned that the automaker won’t be able to find enough new workers to replace retiring ones.

Staying ahead of the production curve

Even though manufacturers are approaching automation differently, the manufacturing industry evolves as innovations change the ways both humans and machines work. Keeping up with and ahead of these changes can give you first-mover advantage, which the APICS Dictionary defines as, “The phenomenon of market leadership being gained through market innovation.”

APICS certifications can help you sharpen your skills and stay up-to-date on the latest supply chain trends so that you can help your company better compete in the global marketplace. Specifically, the APICS Certified in Production and Inventory Management (CPIM) designation can show your current or potential employer that you have the knowledge and skills to strategically streamline operations and maximize the return on investment in systems and technologies. In fact, thousands of employers worldwide look for the APICS CPIM designation when making critical hiring decisions.

APICS updated the CPIM program last year. With the launch of APICS CPIM Version 6.0. Program, participants now have access to the updated CPIM Learning System and must pass only two exams to earn the designation. Learn more about the APICS CPIM designation and how it can help your career at apics.org/cpim.  

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