Maine companies turn to automation as labor shortage persists

Sep. 25—Fourth of five parts

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At the Jackson Laboratory mouse production facility in Ellsworth, a state-of-the-art automated system controls the flow of materials needed for cage cleaning. The system, installed in October 2018, has improved the welfare of the mice and made the work better for the employees, too.

Rather than spending time going room to room pushing around carts of bedding, food, water bottles and cages, technicians order what they need from tablets or computers at their work stations. In the central processing room, a robot arm picks out the requested materials and places them on a conveyance system that delivers them where they're needed. The technician changes the cage and puts the dirty bedding on another conveyance system, which takes it away for disposal.

Keeping the clean materials in a closed system provides less opportunity to introduce pathogens into the facility, which breeds mice for scientific research.

Automation brings many benefits for businesses and workers. It can accomplish tasks that are dangerous or difficult for humans, more quickly and with fewer errors, while freeing up employees for more pleasant and creative endeavors and reducing repetitive motion injuries. It can make businesses more efficient, increasing profits that can be reinvested in new hires, equipment upgrades, or expansion.

Businesses are hesitant to say that automation has reduced the number of workers they need. Many are sensitive to the fears that robots are coming for our jobs. But as employers grow desperate for workers amid a persistent labor shortage, the pull to fill in for workers who aren't applying is becoming stronger.

This is especially pronounced in manufacturing, says Lisa Martin, director of the Manufacturing Association of Maine.

"The increase in automation and robotics has been happening here for the past 15, 20 years since the technology's been there," she said, "but it wasn't due to lack of skilled workers in the past. It was to provide more efficiencies."

She knew that had changed by 2020 and 2021, when the association surveyed 275 businesses and nonprofits and automation emerged as one of their top three needs, along with workforce development and online marketing.

"Automation and robotics came as a result of losing workforce," she said. "That had not been (the case) in the past."

RISE OF THE ROBOTS

Manufacturing already is a heavily automated sector, but companies have begun looking for ways to reduce labor needs further because there are not even enough workers to run the automated production systems.

"I have salesmen that come to me and say, 'I can sell a million-dollar machine to XYZ (company) down the road, but they're not going to buy it unless I can find them three operators to run it,'" said John Bolduc, chair of the Precision Machining and Manufacturing department at Southern Maine Community College.

That is where robots come in. At the school's precision machining lab, students are learning to program and install automated systems in which robots tend to machines by feeding them parts or doing other repetitive tasks.

"We call them 'cobots,'" said Bolduc, referring to the "Universal Robot 5" machine-tending robot-arm model that his students work with. In the lab, the robots tend machines that produce parts for the medical, aerospace and automotive industries.

One of these cobots is stationed in the lobby of the lab to hand out keychain tags to visitors. In a production setting, a similar robot could pick up parts, load them into a machine, take them back out, and perform other mundane steps of a typical operator.

Global automation company Lanco Integrated, with headquarters in Westbrook and operations in Mexico and Asia, designs and builds automated assembly lines for precision test and assembly operations of manufacturers in the automotive, medical, cosmetics, consumer goods, defense and electronics industries.

It uses robots to move parts from one assembly or inspection system to another, as well as in testing processes.

"The robots we're using are on the test assembly operation lines," said Bob Kuniega, Lanco's president and CEO. "These are production lines where somebody has to take a number of parts, assemble them, test them, verify that they're assembled correctly and functioning correctly, electronically or otherwise. Having people there, it takes too many people or too long to do it."

One system the company designed to assemble and inspect heat-activated sprinkler heads is advertised on its website as reducing the required labor by five operators per shift. The system of automated conveyors, grabbers, spinners and picking and placing components can load parts, test the sprinkler head release by pulling it up and down, screw the sprinkler head into the cup that mounts into the ceiling and inspect the covers.

"Some of the systems we make really can't be done by a human or done effectively by a human," Kuniega said. "Some of the systems certainly could, but you'd need too many humans, especially if you're in a developed country where the wages are more expensive."

Because of the supply chain disruptions of the pandemic, many companies are moving away from having all their production done in countries with lower labor costs and are bringing their production plants closer to their end consumer, Kuniega said.

"In those cases, they're really looking for us to take operators off the line, to do it more automated," he said. "It solves a couple of their needs: Obviously, the cost of labor, but also the inability to get labor and keep labor."

The benefits go on, he said: Increased quality and speed of production, reduced repetitive motion injuries for human operators, and the opportunity to free up human labor for higher-level activities. Automation also allows for more traceability. Data collection systems are often built into the machines to validate whether each of the units were assembled within the required tolerances, he said.

Another reason to automate processes that can be done manually is to respond to surges in demand. Lanco produced automated systems to assemble valves for hand sanitizer dispensers and at-home COVID-19 test kits during the pandemic.

At Alternative Manufacturing Inc. in Winthrop, which manufactures electronic components like circuit boards, picking and placing is done by machine. Its automated systems can place small parts with speed and precision that far surpasses human abilities — it advertises placement rates as fast as 17,100 components per hour. But operators are still needed to run the machines.

"Getting talent is very difficult," said James Barry, vice president of sales and marketing. "We have a lot of older employees who are coming around retirement age, and it's like, OK, how do we get new people to fill that?"

Sales representatives have been approaching the company offering machine-tending robots to fill in for operators the company hasn't been able to hire. Alternative Manufacturing hasn't made the transition yet, Barry said, but he anticipates that it will soon.

"It's coming," he said. "You can't get the people you need."

LINKED SECTORS

To help fill the void of manufacturing employees, the Manufacturing Association of Maine recommended to the Governor's Economic Recovery Committee a strategy to help displaced hospitality workers transition to manufacturing.

According to the Maine Department of Labor, more than 33,000 jobs in hospitality and food services were lost during the pandemic. (The latest data shows that 21,800 of those jobs were restored in 2021.) In its recommendations, the manufacturing association calculated that if just 5,160 displaced workers in Maine's hospitality sector, which has an average wage of $38,000, transitioned to manufacturing, with an average wage of $58,100, they would together make over $100 million more than if they had stayed in hospitality, adding to Maine's tax base.

With today's hospitality industry equally desperate for workers, Martin was hesitant to suggest following through with that proposal now.

But the two sectors are historically linked. Looking back to the 1990s, data show a steady decline in manufacturing jobs, with many of the displaced workers moving into hospitality and service jobs. In 1990 there were 93,000 manufacturing jobs. As globalization took many of the manufacturing plants overseas, jobs decreased in the sector by 45% to just over 50,000 in 2010, where they hovered until 2017 when they started increasing again, except for a brief drop in 2020.

At the same time, leisure and hospitality jobs increased by about 46%, from 48,000 in 1990 to 70,000 in 2019, and accommodation and food service jobs increased by 40% over the same time span, from 42,900 to 60,000 jobs.

Both sectors are among the most likely to see jobs replaced by automation in the coming years. An analysis by the Brookings Institute lists production and food services as the occupation with the highest share of tasks that are susceptible to automation, with 90% and 85% of tasks capable of being automated, respectively.

Data show that increasing automation has already led to a decline in jobs in manufacturing. From 2000 to 2011, while the output of Maine's manufacturing sector stayed the same, the number of Maine manufacturing jobs dropped by almost 30,000, according to the Center for Workforce Research and Information, indicating it was not because production was elsewhere.

The Center projects that automation will reverse manufacturing's job gains of the past five years and continue its downward trend, leading to a loss of approximately 8% of jobs (from 2018 levels) by 2028 because of automation of repetitive tasks.

Automation is also making gains in food service. Across the country, restaurants are beginning to dabble in automated food prep. Little Caesars patented a pizza-making robot in 2018. The Boston eatery Splyce, which was recently bought by the fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen, developed a robotic system that chops ingredients and assembles salads and hot-ingredient bowls for customers, with minimal staff input.

While automation hasn't been adopted for food prep yet in Maine, a good number of restaurants have a portion of their service automated, said Matt Lewis, president and CEO of the nonprofit trade group Hospitality Maine, and he expects the level of automation to increase on the service side.

Eateries around the country have shifted to almost fully automated service, where the customers enter their orders on an app, tablet or kiosk, and the only interaction they have with staff is when they hand them their meals. While such systems already have been adopted in many fast-food establishments, Lewis foresees them coming to traditional dine-in restaurants as well.

It's happening at Highroller Lobster Co. in Portland. After being seated by a hostess, customers navigate a self-directed online ordering system accessed on their phones by QR code.

"From my vantage point as someone that loves service and customer service, I hate to see that kind of thing happening, but it probably is the wave," Lewis said. "There will certainly be (more) businesses that do that."

IMPACT ON HUMANS

While the shifts to automation may reduce the number of unfilled job openings, labor advocates caution that they could still cause displacement and other changes that could harm workers if they do not have a seat at the table.

Besides taking away certain jobs, automation can lead companies to "unbundle" and "rebundle" tasks into new jobs, shifting some work currently performed by high-skilled workers to lower-skilled and lower-paid ones, or shifting some remaining human tasks to freelancers and contractors, according to a report by the think tank McKinsey Global Institute.

One company that is automating some jobs and outsourcing others is PCG, an IT firm founded by David Hodgdon in 1996, providing professional services automation. Hodgdon said that most of the workflow services and support ticket management is done by automation in the cloud.

"In the IT industry, if you don't automate, you're kind of being left behind," he said.

They are also outsourcing some of the work that is not automated. Hodgdon said high-end security work is outsourced to workers in the states, as is help-desk work. It is difficult to justify having that position in-house, he said, because "you train someone and they're going to leave you in three, four months."

These kinds of shifts will make work more precarious for workers, economists and labor advocates say, and several have suggested different solutions to address the disruptions workers will face through automation.

Richard Wolff, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, advocates for democratic workplaces, such as worker-coops, in which workers would have a say in how new technologies are implemented.

"In a rational, genuinely democratic society, a mechanism would be agreed upon democratically to incentivize and reward technological progress," he told the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. "It would be a democratic decision of all the persons engaged in production impacted by the new method to decide between using it to generate more profit (given the social costs of the workers thereby unemployed) versus to generate more leisure for workers."

Michael Howard, a University of Maine philosophy professor who focuses on workplace and economic democracy, argues that a universal basic income funded through taxation of the profits gained by automation would be a good way to respond to this new precarity of work.

Andy O'Brien, communications director for Maine AFL-CIO, agrees that workers should benefit from some of the gains in productivity achieved through new technology, but suggests that having more high-paying or union jobs for displaced workers to move into would be a better solution.

The AFL-CIO advocates for a policy of full employment that could be accomplished through government employment programs similar to the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, and through greater union density.

"Unions are heavily involved in bargaining over how new technologies are implemented," O'Brien said. "We've seen this in the paper mills. ... We're having this conversation amongst the bus drivers and transit drivers in relation to autonomous vehicles."

"The public, the government, invests tons of money into research and development," he added, "so it's not far-fetched to say that we should have some say in how that technology is implemented, since we paid for it."

When Central Maine Power transitioned to "smart meters" in 2010, the IBEW spoke for 140 meter-readers who would have lost their jobs. Matt Beck, business manager of IBEW 1837, said the union negotiated job retraining programs, transition allowances, recall provisions and severance packages.

"I can't predict what it would have been, but without us being organized, we wouldn't have had the seat at the table that we did," Beck said. "It was because of organized labor that we were able to secure these benefits for the employees."

Beck pointed out that if done right, and with worker input, automation has the potential to make life better for employers, workers and consumers. He gave the example of new automatic reclosers and switches that CMP is installing, which can help redirect power around outages.

"We still need to go out there and make the repairs, but if we can go around it and keep people's power and get it back off quicker while the repairs are being made, that can be done automatically and lessen the duration of the outages," Beck said. "It doesn't replace workers, but it enhances the ability to keep the lights on."