Machines have replaced some workers, but other manufacturers mix history and innovation
There's a popular joke in the manufacturing industry, said David N. Taylor, executive director of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association in Harrisburg.
In the future, there will be only a man and a dog at a manufacturing plant, and the man's job will be to feed the dog.
"The dog's job will be to make sure the man doesn't touch any of the machines," he said with a laugh. "It's a cynical way to look at it, but there's more than a kernel of truth to it. We've become exceedingly good at making machines that make machines."
Machinery and robotics continue to change the landscape of midstate manufacturing businesses as companies learn how to integrate technology while keeping their workforces intact and costs down.
It's a difficult balance to achieve, local experts said, considering the advances in technology not just today, but where they could be headed in the future.
"I think the trillion dollar question is, 'What's the endgame?'" said Michael Smeltzer, executive director of the York-based Manufacturers' Association, formerly Manufacturers' Association of South Central PA. "Nobody knows. We don't know when we will have technology not just to do, but to think. That's the next generation of technology: robots that are able to process logic."
Some companies invest more in technology while others don't, local experts said. Some fall in the middle, such as York Wallcoverings.
The wallpaper-making company, with its all-time-high of 350 employees, has been able to keep a balance of old machines and new. Last year it purchased a digital, state-of-the-art printing press machine. It's the company's fifth different press currently in operation.
Conversely, the company has a surface printer that went into service the same time the company did — in 1895.
LeRue Brown, director of marketing at York Wallcoverings, said the machine is old enough that it's not being made anymore. However, the company has stored enough replacement parts to keep it in service. If the parts aren't available, the company can actually make them.
"So theoretically we can keep (the surface printers) going as long as we can make parts to repair them," Brown said. "They are fairly simple machines, at least compared to more contemporary presses."
The press has been around so long, he said, that it's developed higher value because there just aren't many left. That particular press gives an old-time, classic look that hasn't been duplicated in newer printing machines, Brown said.
"It gives you a look that sends you back in time," he said. "It's a more unique look, and it's one our customers still want. When we slow the press down, it even looks like it's handmade. We want to keep that look, especially since most other companies don't have that machine around anymore."
Brown believes there still will be a place for humans in the future of York Wallcoverings, because there are necessary jobs along the production line that can't be done by machines or robots. Many of the employees have been cross-trained to work on all five presses, he said.
"Ours is a business of artistry," he said. "The value is in the color and design. Naturally, we're always trying to become more efficient. I think we'll always use a combination of (machines and humans)."
Other companies have gone very high-tech, such as The Hershey Co., which opened its expanded West Chocolate Avenue factory in Derry Township in 2012. The expansion cost $300 million.
The machinery is so high tech, actually, that the company declined to discuss it, because most of it is custom-made specifically to Hershey's operations, is "highly proprietary" and "would be of great interest to our competitors," company spokesman Jeff Beckman said.
The argument for more technology is the same as it has been for years: It's a one-time cost that could cut out the annual expense of a number of employees that man production lines.
In that fight, workers are inadvertently pricing themselves out of the market, manufacturing officials said. While the workforce represented about 30 percent of a manufacturing company's total cost annually about 10 years ago, now it's approaching 40 percent, according to Smeltzer.
When companies try to look for more efficient, cost-savings ways to proceed, buying machines that can replace the rising employee cost is often a direction companies take if the technology is available, Smeltzer said.
"Companies have three major expenses — workforce, overhead and materials," he said. "For good or bad, we've sliced overhead to where there isn't any more to slice. Materials are what they are. It's very tough to cut material costs. We've still got to find ways to make more with less, and the way to do that is to invest in tech and integrate it into the workplace."
Those costs aren't just from salaries but also from benefits such as insurance, workers' compensation and taxes.
"A new piece of equipment doesn't have a Social Security badge," Taylor said.
Where experts say the manufacturing industry will need more workers is in more highly skilled areas, such as engineering, research and development, and on the new machines sure to be invented.
Actually, the industry needs those types of workers now, Smeltzer said, but locally and across the state, it can't fill the positions, because both in-house and outside candidates aren't properly trained.
"There are thousands and thousands of people unemployed or underemployed and thousands of jobs going unfilled, because we have this mismatch of skills," he said. "We're in a transitional time with technology. I think we're going to be fine at the end of the day, but as we go through this transition, there is going to be pain."