Having worked for Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) my entire career, every day is manufacturing day for me. So personally, World Manufacturing Day is special – it represents a moment to reflect on the industry as a whole – where we have come from and where we are going.
Manufacturing is in a constant state of evolution. From the advent of steam engines, to the automobile, refrigeration and now today’s array of renewable energy technologies, industrial evolution has long been a driving force in the progress of society, enabling people to move faster, produce more and live longer. Our story spans much of that time, and we too have evolved. MHI started as a small shipbuilding enterprise in Nagasaki in 1884. Today, we are a global enterprise that builds power plants, wind turbines, aircraft, space rockets and other sophisticated machinery for use around the world.
Just the past 30 years or so have brought significant change – in the 1990s, my World Manufacturing Day might have been spent focused on the topics of mass production and global supply chains. Last week, I thought about distributed manufacturing, 3D printing, and factories that are operated by artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. Digitalization and automation are indeed vastly expanding the ways we produce and create while optimizing output and creating new kinds of well-paying jobs.
This trend, combined with recent patterns of anti-globalization and a dwindling supply of working-age employees in developed countries, raises significant questions about the future of our industry and, understandably, provokes some unease. But it is important to remember that while manufacturing technology can sometimes eliminate jobs, history shows it ultimately produces more jobs overall and more wealth for society.
Manufacturing Day gave me a chance to reflect on the fact that it is more important than ever to commit to our workforce in all markets and ensure they are skilled, educated, and contributing to local economies they operate in. Since MHI first began automating production, we have sought to ensure that our workers are retained and switched to other roles, allowing them to maximize their potential, skills and expertise.
It is MHI’s belief that the industry must focus on the long-term. It would be shortsighted if companies like ours – who spend years training and investing in our workforce – were to shed employees at the first opportunity. We must encourage and allow our workforce to benefit from this new direction – any process of automation should be accompanied by a concerted effort to retain technical skills, expertise and institutional knowledge. We will continue to need engineers and other skilled individuals to support the manufacturing sector’s ongoing evolution. Automation offers us a chance to do this, but we believe that it must not be the only answer. We will need skills and brainpower to pursue new innovations.
Presently, MHI is in the process of “skilling-up” our staff who previously carried out manual labor, but must now oversee the use of AI and robots at our production sites. We are also seeing growing need for data analysts, technical guidance roles and global talent.
At MHI, our mission is to provide a future where people can live safe and fulfilling lives supported by sustainable technology. MHI will always be at the forefront of innovation, but we will continue to focus on the current and future needs of society. As manufacturers, we need to show responsible leadership in adopting new technologies and ensure that our growth is truly sustainable and our progress is widely shared.
It’s striking that even in the age of automation, the challenges that many companies like ours face are very human. Bringing in new technology cannot substitute for the need to find the right people with the right skills, to pursue workplace innovation, and, of course, focus intently on meeting the needs of our customers. We must remember that technology, after all, is meant to benefit humans, not work against people.
Each year, Manufacturing Day is an excellent opportunity to consider how we, as manufacturing companies, can help enhance the lives of people and the communities we live and work in. I look forward to continued dialogue on these themes in the days and weeks to come.