I wrote a news story recently about COHAM (Centre for Occupational Health in Automotive Manufacturing), located at Ohio State University in Columbus, which has begun to research ways to use material handling equipment to reduce stresses on workers in the automotive sector. Interestingly, it says there are over 75 auto plants in Ohio and they produced more than 1.5 million cars in 2006.

In the US automotive industry, a single back injury can add as much as $2,000 to the cost of production of a single vehicle. But until recently, there has not been much research into the ways that US automakers could reduce stress, fatigue and injury to US auto workers. And this problem isn’t exclusive to the States. Far from it.

With an aging and longstanding workforce (another global issue in the crane business), US auto manufacturers are beginning to understand the needs of these particular workers. By helping them avoid injuries, the costs of vehicle production can be kept down and potentially help make American automotive makers more competitive.

The reference to the aging workforce reminded me of some conversations I had not so long ago, when I went on a bit of a road trip through Germany visiting some of the key players in the factory crane market on a meandering route between Hamburg and Frankfurt. While business may be on the up (at last) there are growing concerns over the lack of quality young people joining the industry. Germany isn’t on its own here. In fact, I know the UK, for example, has a similar problem.

Manufacturer JD Neuhaus has a fascinating facility based in Witten where a history charted in three museums flank modern facilities. A mock-up of a blacksmith’s forge demonstrates where the journey began. (I remember it even smelt old in there). I imagined a young apprentice or trainee at the time observing his master’s every move, one day to pass these skills onto the next generation of tool maker – or crane builder, I suppose.

But the kids aren’t so keen anymore. Heinz Helmut Kempkes, managing director of Kuli Hebezeuge Helmut Kempkes GmbH, based in Remscheid, told me: “It’s easy to find people to do office work but harder to get them running around in blue suits.”

Even remote control manufacturers offering a chance to shape the technological future of the business are struggling. HBC-radiomatic, for example, says it is hard to find youngsters.

But in a world where productivity is massively important (arguably more important than people), and where automation is increasingly commonplace, who can blame the kids for not wanting to dirty their shirts? Who’s to say that even the brightest of youngsters will not see his role in a factory soon taken over by a robot? An extreme case maybe but surely we can excuse an imaginative young mind from wondering. I’ve seen hand-like robotic fingers testing crane parts on the end of flexible double-jointed arms. What’s next?

I’ll see what opinions are on this intriguing subject in the States at the weekend when I travel to the heart of the Old South in Savannah, Georgia, where the Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA) will stage its annual meetings from September 29 to October 3.

More from me soon.

Richard Howes, Editor