The manufacturing and production industry’s pivot to increasing automation in its facilities is not new, but embracing this way of building products will be essential to companies’ success in the long term, industry leaders said May 28.

“I don’t think we have any choice as a nation to adopt … automation across many, many aspects of what we do,” said Nazzic Keene, CEO of SAIC [SAIC], in a Thursday video conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Amid queries about whether the current impact of the novel COVID-19 coronavirus is creating a stronger dynamic to increase automation and potentially reduce the need for human workers to be in close proximity to one another, industry leaders and advocates agreed that was the future, no matter what the current situation.

Bell [TXT] is among many companies that have already begun implementing new artificial intelligence manufacturing techniques into its facilities and will continue to do so on future programs. The company plans to break ground on a new manufacturing and technology center that will be the “showpiece” for how it will use robotics and automation to build aircraft, said company President and CEO Mitch Snyder.

“That’s kind of the direction we were moving in, anyway,” Snyder said, noting that the industry developing new ways to digitally design aircraft prototypes “makes it much easier to build tooling and the machinery to actually perform those tasks, perform them at a high rate and also at high quality and lower cost.”

That being said, the defense manufacturing industry will not pivot to a majority automated system overnight, Snyder said. “All of those processes were certified by the government agencies,” and it will take time to change course, he added.

The “new normal” for the defense industry is going to be different, and “automation is a big factor,” said Hawk Carlisle, president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) and retired Air Force general.

Carlisle, who retired from the Air Force in 2017 after serving as the commander of Air Combat Command, noted that the U.S. military has already begun its pivot to automation in the form of unmanned vehicles in the air, on land and at sea.

That being said, “there are still people in the loop, and so where you put them in the loop is just going to change,” he said. Organizations such as SAIC will be among those who provide insight as to where to place personnel to best suit the new normal of automated systems and capabilities.

“It’s going to move people to a different part of the loop, and I think that’s part of the quest for talent as we go forward,” Carlisle added.

Keene, from SAIC, agreed that increased automation will continue the ongoing “war for talent” in manufacturing and technology industries, but that its progress is a “must-do for our nation.”

“The way I view it is, it’s a force multiplier,” she said. “It allows us to be so much better and do so much more with the tools and technology that we have.”