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Who Misses the Rotary Phone?

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Technology drives evolution, especially the evolution of new jobs and the nature of work itself.

We’ve all read the headlines: The American manufacturing industry has lost its footing. Over the decades, manufacturing jobs have been exported overseas to cheaper labor markets. This trend has devastated prosperous factory towns, disrupted entire communities, displaced generations of workers, and created a disturbing reliance on foreign manufacturers to supply domestic needs. Manufacturing is therefore viewed as a labor-intensive and not a particularly tech-forward industry. So why would today’s younger, tech-savvy workforce be drawn to manufacturing?

Manufacturing has changed — in order to survive. Machine learning, sensory-enabled artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, and technology that analyzes massive amounts of data — this is the world manufacturing is evolving to include. Though we constantly hear that AI will result in thousands of job losses, I argue the opposite; thousands, if not millions, of new jobs will be created.

Remember the rotary phone? You used to need a landline and a phone. Then came smart phones. Jobs for making rotary phones disappeared, but look at what replaced them: vastly more complex smartphones consisting of many more components. Those parts need designers, production workers and testers to build them. That is just the hardware. Look at the entire massive ecosystem of jobs smart phones created — application developers, literally, by the millions; security experts (your rotary phone was never hacked); telecommunication experts; and literally hundreds more.

Technology drives evolution, especially the evolution of new jobs and the nature of work itself. Manufacturing is at the heart of those new jobs. AI, robotics, the so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT), and augmented reality (AR) are just a few of the technologies manufacturing is adopting.

All of this adoption demands a skilled workforce. Policymakers and business leaders must recognize this paradigm shift and prepare for the rapid change. Already, forecasts project that 2.4 million manufacturing jobs in the United States will go unfilled over the next decade due to the lack of requisite training and education that AI manufacturing requires.  

Fortunately, consortiums of universities and business partners have already stepped up to address the gap. At the University of South Carolina, we’ve teamed with companies to bring new technologies to the university. The new Industrial IoT lab at the university will use cloud-based data to develop a wide range of student learning, teaching and research pilot projects.

These projects begin with a customer problem. In response, the university assembles a team comprised of multiple disciplines and skills — mechanical, chemical and electrical engineers, along with software developers and data scientists. The students iterate and build a solution to meet the need. Once complete, the customer gets not only a solution but a trained workforce, too. Companies get valuable feedback on their products, as well as a technology license from the customer. Customers, students and industry partners all win — all the while helping to advance new technologies for us all.

Here’s the big picture: Earlier this year, President Trump issued the “American AI Initiative,” setting the stage for America to lead in AI across all industries. Just last month, the National Institute of Standards and Technology issued a plan to develop AI technical standards. A critical success factor for AI is getting access to data — lots of it. Manufacturing is uniquely positioned to lead in AI development because it generates a massive amount of data without putting proprietary or competitive advantages at risk.

If we’re successful in these efforts, it will mean being able to detect a motor on the onset of failure due to a ball bearing, prior to a crash or maintenance emergency. It will mean computers that can be trained to spot problems, before defective products reach the customer. Above all, it will mean an educated, highly skilled workforce that can troubleshoot problems with assistance from analytics. And no one is better suited to fill these interesting, high-paying jobs of the future workforce than American students.

It’s a new world in connected and smart manufacturing, and jobs are evolving. Because, really, who misses the rotary phone?

Dr. Ramy Harik, a Fulbright Scholar, is a faculty member of the University of South Carolina Department of Mechanical Engineering.

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