It’s vogue to assert that mass employment will never return in surface mount manufacturing, but there are good reasons to be skeptical of such reports.
It’s true that efficiency and automation generally go hand in hand, and that companies look to minimize their fixed costs. (While some economists consider labor a variable cost, I think it’s more practical to view it as a fixed cost because, in practice, it is very difficult to match staff to short-term dips and peaks in demand.) But it’s also true that as we drive down the cost of electronics, we expand the potential market for those products, thus potentially increasing the volumes. Higher volumes demand additional lines which in turn begets increased staffing.
I do think there will be a continued tendency to reduce the number of workers per line, but true “lights out” manufacturing is still a long way off. As long as the demand for electronics remains insatiable, and as long as creative designers and engineers continue to dream up ingenuous ways to integrate technology into every facet of our lives, we will need workers — and lots of them — to turn those dreams into reality.