Manufacturing 4.0: Integrating New Technology and Old Work Environments

MFG 4.0 aIt’s being futuristically referred to as “Manufacturing 4.0,” the latest in a long line of wrinkles in our ever-changing world of heavy and light industry, a seismic marriage of technology, automation and computerization that is causing more and more functions once done by human hands to be performed by sophisticated and highly specialized machines.

I will write more about Manufacturing 4.0 in the months ahead, especially from a human perspective.  But this issue I’d like to offer my quick take on the concept as a whole.  And to do that, let me first take you back a few decades.

Economic advisors to the first President Bush, witnessing a phenomenon that was already well underway in the world marketplace – namely the globalization of trade and manufacturing – urged the president to prepare for a virtual sea change in macroeconomics.  Among the first things the United States should do, they told him, was to consider a strategic alliance/open trade policy with Canada and Mexico.

Just a few years later, President Clinton would sign into law what by then was known as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The U.S. labor unions and the Canadian Liberal party were apoplectic, claiming the NAFTA agreement would cost them and their countries thousands of jobs – which, at least in the short term, it did.

MFG 4.0 bBut what those men and women failed to realize was that NAFTA was not making anything possible that wasn’t already running rampant in the global arena.  It only put something of a federal seal of approval on it.  Almost as though the three countries involved were trying to validate a force far more powerful and irrepressible than anything that together they could have ever conceived or created. The market was going to become a global force and an international phenomenon, in other words, regardless of whether or not NAFTA was ratified.  And what was important for the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico to do was to make sure they were as strategically prepared for that phenomenon as possible.

Inevitable March of Manufacturing 4.0.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Technology development is happening.  It’s a reality, whether we choose to accept it or not. And like any breakthrough in science or any quantum leap in the free and open market, it is a force unto itself that simply will not be denied. So we can debate Manufacturing 4.0 all we want.  But the longer we debate it, and the longer we wring our hands over its impact on our lives (or what it will mean to our jobs), the less time we’ll actually have to prepare for it.

MFG 4.0 hWhat’s more, we should never lose sight of the fact that NAFTA – as well-intentioned and important as it was – was in the end, just a label for something bigger and far more compelling than even itself. So too, we must understand that Manufacturing 4.0 is little more than a catchy academic buzzword for something much greater and far more pervasive than any one sector of the economy. Technology is changing everything we Americans do these days, from the way we bank and the way we vote, to the way we communicate, the way we relate to one another, and – yes – even the way we build things. And inasmuch, we can choose to do one thing or we can choose to do the other, because believe me there is very little in between.

We can choose to learn how to integrate technology into our lives and our places of work, or we can bury our head in the sand, hope it all goes away, and come to grips with the harsh likelihood that we may be consigning ourselves to spending the rest of our days socially, culturally and (especially) economically marginalized.

MFG 4.0 lMy friends, I cannot say for certain what the future holds.  No one can.  But I know this: Whether it’s Manufacturing 4.0 or Life 10.0, now is the time for those of us far down our chosen career path to open our minds to the transformative power and limitless possibilities of technology. We must become as conversant with it as humanly possible even if it means going back to school, teaching ourselves in our off-hours or seeking out special training.

Technology and Manufacturing 4.0 are not Orwellian, futuristic concepts.  They are real. They are happening. And they are now.  They have become, in other words, as much a part of our daily personal and professional lives as air and water. For all that technology promises to someday take away from us in this brave new world now being tagged as Manufacturing 4.0 – relatively valueless things like low-skilled jobs and repetitive tasks – it will kick open that many more doors of opportunity and that many more windows to the future.

MFG 4.0 eBut stand warned; those doors of opportunity will not be open for everyone, and they will not stay open forever. Only workers – and I mean everyone from the corner office to the shop floor – who possess defined, dynamic and in-demand job skills will be able to continue to pass through them freely. 

Editor’s note:  A version of this blog post originally appeared in April/May 2016 edition of Manufacturing Today magazine.

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