Automation: Dispelling the myths and facing the realities

Automation is integral to sustaining economic growth in Canada because our skilled labor pool numbers look bleak, according to Max Caron, director of CWB Association.

A stark example of the depth of the skilled labour shortage is that although there are over 23,000 openings for welding jobs in Canada, apprenticeships are down 41%.  Similarly, apprenticeship registrations for millwrights are down 35%; steamfitter apprenticeships are down 33%; and sheet metal worker apprenticeships are down 28%.

“People ask why are there not enough kids signing up for apprenticeships?  That’s not it. There are not enough kids,” Caron says. “As we pushed kids into universities, we literally crippled every trade in Canada.”

At the same time, the push towards reshoring that has arisen to deal with manufacturing’s supply chain bottlenecks revealed by the pandemic will place even more pressure on the need for skilled labour.

“If we want to make sure we are manufacturing things here as much as we can, how do we bridge that (labour) gap? It has to be through automation…Automation is going to be huge in terms of maintaining our way of life because we literally don’t have the manpower,” Caron says.

Caron was speaking to attendees of ABB Inc.’s inaugural Welding Automation Technology Event, held at ABB’s Brampton facility. The event was held to showcase advancements in welding and robotic automation and included industry speakers, workshops, live demos and cells.

A challenge when it comes to adopting automation is that the Canadian educational system is just now waking up to the need to include automation in the curriculum.

“I taught college for eight years, I’ve been part of trades programs and apprenticeship boards for years. Automation and robotics are just starting to make it on the script and there is no apprenticeship program for robotics. There are some programs that have robotics integrated into them but at this point every welding program should have a robot (component), every single one,” Caron says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a six-week apprenticeship program or a 32-week course or a three-year program, there should be some aspect of at least a few hours of understanding what this is.”

He adds that education about automation also needs to start much earlier: “We need to get to younger students. Ten years and up we should be putting robots in front of them. We should be telling them of the many things made by robots. We should be having these conversations with kids at school and at home.” Industry needs to step up to the challenge and send representatives into classrooms to speak about automation, something that is not happening now, Caron adds.

“Companies that invest in automation actually grow and hire more people—you need engineers, you need welders, you need maintenance people and electricians. You need all the facets of your local community to make automation a success.” — Max Caron, CWB Association.

Support for fast adoption of automation must also be built with the Canadian community at large, Caron believes. But that’s going to be an uphill struggle because many Canadians are influenced by myths about automation that lead them to distrust it.  Caron outlined those myths and refuted them:

Automation destroys jobs: That’s not true and that has been proven over decades, Caron says. It’s about changing jobs, not destroying them.

“Companies that invest in automation actually grow and hire more people—you need engineers, you need welders, you need maintenance people and electricians. You need all the facets of your local community to make automation a success,” Caron says. “We know this but how do we let society know this? People look at the self check-out lane at their grocery store and think it’s taking away jobs. They don’t think of the jobs those machines create.”

Automation is only for large wealthy companies: Automation technology has advanced, and costs have come down.

“We only ever thought of automotive plants with giant robots doing the hardest, dirtiest jobs. The expectation of what automation can do has changed. Now we look at cobots and it’s something that helps us and it’s a totally new way of looking at things,” Caron says.

Only highly trained engineers run robots or can understand them: If a company had a welding robot and had to hire someone to run it, should the company hire a welding engineer over a welder?

Society would pick an engineer, Caron says, but if you don’t have the person who used to do the work involved the robot integration won’t work: “Often times it’s the person in the trenches  who really knows what the barriers are. That’s something society doesn’t really understand.”

To dispel these automation myths will require a grass roots approach and changing current norms, Caron suggests.

“What does society think about who should go into welding? Men. Maybe men who didn’t do well in school. At the other end, the accepted norm is that the highly educated student with an engineering degree is the robot guy. Those norms are out the window. Everyone is in. Robots don’t care what sex you are, what color you are, if you have a disability. It really is just how you get information into the robot. We are looking for a better functioning, more inclusive society and automation is a big part of that,” Caron says. “…People with disabilities will do fine running a pendant and teaching a robot how to weld. Automation is not something just for engineers, it’s also for people retraining, or just entering the trades, or maybe 40 years old and wanting to try something new.”

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