Will manufacturing automation finally eliminate the need for any human workers?S

Here are some sobering statistics to mull over on the day after Labor Day: according to InsideScience.org, U.S. manufacturers have cut nearly 5 million manufacturing jobs (about 33%) since 2001, "yet the value of manufactured goods rose 27 percent, and U.S. exports reached their highest level in 20 years." Will automated technology soon remove the need for factory workers entirely?

For many manufacturing companies, the decision to replace people with automated systems has been a no-brainer. In the last 10 years, factories in the U.S. have had to incorporate automation into their production processes to compete in international markets; tens of thousands of factories that chose not to (or couldn't afford to) have either shut down or moved overseas.

Machines can't get injured and take legal action; they don't call in sick (per se); and they have a higher manufacturing turnover. But they also provide companies with a wealth of information about their manufacturing processes.

"At some point, automation is not just about replacing a cheap person, but an enormous source of data that gives you enough information about a process to improve its quality, speed, and cost." Said Doug Woods, president of the Association for Manufacturing Technology.

"If a human's doing it, you don't have that data."

So what does the future of manufacturing hold for human workers? It depends on who you ask. According to analysts like Tom Runiewicz, an economist at IHS Global Insight, "The person you need is going to [have to be] very technical, almost an engineer...[unskilled factory laborers] will almost be obsolete."

But Woods maintains that increasing the presence of automated systems in the manufacturing process will have the opposite effect, bringing employment to those with less technical skill sets:

The jobs are not going to be what they were 20 or 25 years ago, but there is going to be more manufacturing. We're going to employ smarter technology that will enable people without a college education to work in factories.

So which is it? Will the future of manufacturing bring work to the more technically inclined, herald employment opportunities for more "ordinary" workers, or do away with humans in the factory workforce entirely?

You can read more about incorporating technology in the U.S. manufacturing process, its impact on the U.S.'s position as a leader in global productivity, and its implications for factory workers over at Inside Science.

Top image via Reiner Plendl/Shutterstock