Automation is the newest buzzword on everyone's lips when it comes to manufacturing. Is it reliable? Will it really replace humans effectively? Will there be a pushback from consumers?

Apprehensive questions abound, but many are born out of misunderstanding the spread of automation, or overly-optimistic forecasts over how quickly "the turnover" will actually eclipse flesh-and-blood workers.

The idea of using machinery to increase efficiency is hardly new — the Industrial Revolution was a major turning point in America's history, after all but advances like nuanced sensors and AI are unveiling capabilities we couldn't have dreamed about a mere 10 years ago. To weather these changes, you'll need to know what to expect, and where you'll fit in.

Skills and education matter

While robots have come far in the grand scheme of innovation, we're unlikely to wake up facing "the singularity" anytime soon. As of now, the majority of robots and automated assembly lines still need their human overlords for upkeep and guidance, and still falter often enough that a specific human skill set is required to intervene.

As Jason Schenker notes in a recent excerpt for Industry Week, the more technical and skilled your position, or the more education necessary to take it on, the less likely that position is to be replaced by robots.

In other words, if you do find yourself staring down a machine while advancing your career, taking a break or part-time employment to pursue higher education or certification is a smart move. The workers who are slated for the digital chopping block are those in low-level entry jobs that require little more than basic problem-solving or simple, repetitive movements to complete.

Tangential jobs will grow

Say that automation does threaten your job. What can you do to maintain a viable presence in the workforce? The best allies for automation are, perhaps ironically, the workers who machines are slated to replace.

Sensors can't duplicate gut instinct honed over decades, nor can it make judgment calls in a crisis situation. A smart company will keep enough employees on the manufacturing floor to facilitate those decisions and keep things running smoothly.

Rather than campaigning against automation, learn what it can do for your company and how you can fit yourself into that equation. Not to put too fine a point on it, but automation saves money, and cost-saving is one of the industry's favorite phrases if you want to remain a valuable asset to your company, you'll need to be proactive about it in this brave new world.

As Nathan Bomey of USA Today notes, "Automation is the greatest threat to the economy, but may also be its biggest opportunity."

Not my industry ...

Yes, your industry can be automated. Don't sacrifice your career to complacency; the evolution of machine-based work is touching everything from groceries to long-haul trucking, and in a matter of years it will likely be an inevitable part of daily life.

Stay one step ahead by following automation trends in trade news sources. Again, positioning yourself as an indispensable human counterpart to new machinery is simply an intelligent career move.

When it comes to robots on assembly lines, it's never an if, it's a when the potential for scalable production, minimal workspace and nonstop operation is simply too great a lure for growing business sectors to ignore. The adoption may move slowly, particularly if your industry has a lot of "moving parts," but don't be surprised if the near future finds some of the more mundane aspects of your assembly line operating via power cords instead of time cards.