Last week I called a manager of a heavy fabrication operation. We chatted briefly, but after a few minutes he had to go. He told me six of his operators hadn’t shown up that morning, so shop managers were scrambling.
Then I saw a headline on the front page of the Sunday New York Times: “Skilled work, without the worker: New wave of deft robots is changing global industry.”
Industry leaders continue to scream for good people, those with good attitudes, work ethic, and (ideally) technical aptitude. Sometimes, managers are just looking for people who actually show up. Meanwhile, mass media conveys the idea that robots are taking over the modern factory. No wonder manufacturing has trouble attracting enough people.
I write headlines all the time, so I empathize with the Times staff. “Skilled work, without the worker” certainly sounds good. Still, most of the jobs those robots perform (welding aside) aren’t highly skilled ones, as the headline suggests. A bigger point in the story is buried deep within the jump page: Vision systems have made robots smarter, so they can take on non-repetitive tasks. With lean practices and inventory management, factories are careful not to build too much inventory of any one thing. So robots that can produce myriad products on-demand represent a significant advancement. Call it “high-mix, high-volume” manufacturing.
But even that doesn’t describe what really dominates U.S. manufacturing--all those high-mix, low-volume contract manufacturers, including the heavy fabricator I called last week. According to the U.S. Census, most manufacturing companies in this country have fewer than a few dozen employees. These small shops dot the country, serving the Caterpillars and Boeings of the world. And yet, the Times article didn’t reference limited-quantity manufacturing until near the end of the feature.
“Some jobs are beyond the reach of automation … [including] jobs where only a limited quantity of products are made, or there are many versions of each product, requiring expensive reprogramming of robots.”
Outside the automotive business, that describes most of U.S. manufacturing.
I don’t fault the Times here, really. The paper probably featured robots mainly to challenge the Obama Administration’s assertion that U.S. manufacturing can solve our high unemployment problem--and I’m all for challenging our politicians. And yes, U.S. manufacturing by itself won’t solve our country’s high unemployment rate. This industry no longer employs masses of unskilled or even semi-skilled workers.
To attract more people, perhaps the industry needs to communicate the subtleties of this business. Big factories are like whales: impressive, dramatic, and quite a news story if they die. But whales are only part of the ecosystem. Contract fabricators and other small manufacturers are the plankton. They’re small, difficult to notice, maybe even a little boring--at least at first glance. But they’re everywhere, and without them, the whales (that is, large factories) couldn’t survive.
These small companies invest in certain kinds of automation all the time, of course, but articulating robot arms don’t dominate such low-volume operations. And besides, even if a press brake or welding operation is robotized, people with bending and welding experience still are the best at programming and operating those robotic cells.
Most important, small shops are where the jobs are. For all the talk about how jobs are so important, you'd think people would pay more attention to company leaders at these small shops. They continue to scream for good people. Maybe after the election, politicians will actually start to hear them.
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