Automation in manufacturing is often narrowly depicted as robots doing jobs that people used to do, resulting in workforce displacement.

The fact is, automation is helping businesses stay globally competitive in a time when finding skilled manufacturing employees is exceedingly difficult. In the U.S. last year, and for the first time in our country’s history, there were more jobs available than there were people to fill them. We can certainly relate in North Dakota, where our economic growth is also hindered by the state’s low population. This puts a strain on businesses and negatively impacts production. How can manufacturing companies, especially those capable of achieving sustainable growth, continue to make quality products if there are not enough people to fill the open positions?

In 2015, WCCO Belting utilized an automation incentive similar to the 21st Century Manufacturing Workforce Incentive (HB 1040) currently being considered by the state North Dakota Legislature. It helped us justify investments in automation, particularly those with long-term returns, so that we could make overdue improvements to our technology, equipment and production processes. Today, WCCO employees manufacture higher-quality products, more efficiently, and in a safer manner than in the past. We are shipping 20 percent more product with 20 percent fewer people. To be clear, these positions were not eliminated, rather our operations department continues to restructure in contention with the shrinking labor pool.

With the rising threat of workforce availability, our legislators must recognize the direct and indirect benefits of this automation incentive on our manufacturing employees. Automation helps people work more safely and effectively with modernized technology, equipment and processes. The increased output increases revenue and cost savings that can be passed on in the form of compensation or improvements in other areas impacting employee job satisfaction, such as training.

The automation initiative helped WCCO Belting improve our technology, equipment and production processes. Indirectly, it strengthened our ability to offer rewarding careers and made us a more competitive employer. I encourage those opposed to the HB 1040 to look at how companies have successfully implemented automation and its direct and indirect benefits on the workforce. Talk with individuals in manufacturing to gain a comprehensive perspective.

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This automation initiative is a win-win for our state, businesses and the people in our communities.