Each night when the lights go out, eight of the 53 machines at Swissline Precision Manufacturing in Cumberland keep running after all the employees have gone home.
This “lights-out” shift, as fully automated production is known in the industry, is made possible by advances in robotics and computers that can now replace many of the more routine tasks that used to require humans.
Even if they don’t run lights out, most manufacturers in Rhode Island have adopted some level of automation, especially since the explosion in computer-processing power and increased globalization of the last two decades.
“We have been automating for many years and it has been refined to the point where now we can run machines at night unattended,” said Swissline President Dave Chenevert. “This lets us run certain jobs more efficiently and get other jobs out in a more timely manner. It cuts lead time.”
Paradoxically, Chenevert said the primary thing preventing him from running with even more automation is an inability to find workers who can program and run the new advanced machines efficiently.
Swissline could add up to seven new workers and another shift at its factory – which makes parts on contract for medical device and aerospace companies – Chenevert said, if it could find qualified applicants.
“It’s the skills-gap issue that exists in getting people into the manufacturing industry,” Chenevert said. “I don’t think the general public has a clue what we are about and what is required to get into our career path. We are willing to train people [in] how to run these machines, but we need a certain base level of skills.”
Across the country, the automation of traditional factories has been hailed for boosting productivity and lamented for hastening the loss of low-skilled, blue-collar jobs.
Rhode Island, like much of the United States, has seen manufacturing employment shrink steadily for decades.
In August, there were 40,000 manufacturing jobs in the state, less than half the total in 1994 and the 95,000 manufacturing jobs in August 1990, according to statistics from the R.I. Department of Labor and Training.