Manufacturing 4.0: The Ground Level Perspective

4.0 aIt reminds me a little of the old “Summer of Love” in the Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco when I was a kid, or the grunge music scene in Seattle in the 90s; two hot, trendy and newsworthy movements that by the time the academics had gotten around to naming them, by the time the media had begun covering them, and by the time they’d wormed their way into mainstream awareness, those at their epicenter had long-since moved on.

“It,” of course, is Manufacturing 4.0. And “it” is where our sector is supposedly headed, to an era (if not an entire environment) all-but devoid of human input in the process of designing, molding, shaping, forging and distributing durable goods, an era in which computers, software and sophisticated machinery promise to do something like 90% of the work.

4.0 bNow, given that I’m a small manufacturer, and given that the workers in my modest but still-humming shop come to work these days with this trendy, media-darling of a concept hanging over their heads (and, to be sure, their livelihoods) ominously like a razor-sharp, job-killing guillotine, I decided a week or so ago to have a sitdown over pizza with a few of my employees to get a sense of what Manufacturing 4.0 means to them and to gauge what, if any, angst they may harbor over it.

What I discovered in the course of that extended lunch both surprised and delighted me. Where I expected to find at least trace elements of denial, I found a universal and very palpable sense of anticipation. And where I expected to find some level of fear and trepidation about job security, I found excitement; real honest-to-goodness fervor over American manufacturing’s (and, by extension, my company’s) possibilities for growth.

4.0 cI suppose much like the Summer of Love and the Grunge scene, just as the idea was finally making its way into polite conversation on Main Street, U.S.A., so many of those who represent the heart and soul of U.S. industry had long since moved on from Manufacturing 4.0 – and, I’m happy to report, gladly so.

4.0 dUsing those few employees as a barometer, emotionally and intellectually anyway, whatever anxiety U.S. factory workers may have once had about Manufacturing 4.0 seems to have been more than supplanted by an eagerness to work in a modern, efficient and technology-driven environment. Granted, those eating pizza and sharing their thoughts with me that day were some of my longest-termed and highest-skilled workers, but to a man they agreed they couldn’t wait to work in a shop whose capacity and output were going to be defined not by our sector’s traditional limitations, but by the latest and most cutting edge advances in industrial technology.

They’d moved on from Manufacturing 4.0, in other words. In fact, one of them even said he had already started imagining “Manufacturing 5.0” in which shop machines would not only do the bulk of the work, but would also have Artificial Intelligence and actually learn as they operate, becoming much more efficient and far less wasteful in the process.

4.0 eA few of the other notable things mentioned that day over pizza:

  • Manufacturing 4.0 is going to be a significant change, no doubt, one employee told me. But it may not be as big a leap as either the broad deployment of the CNC turning centers in the 90’s or the universal adoption of the MTConnect standard in 2009.
  • One told me the broad use of standardized machines and the integration of software has had a huge impact on productivity and efficiency, which is making his job easier and far less stressful. What once took three operators and five machines, he said, now takes one operator and one machine. It allows him to do more and focus on planning and long-term strategizing.
  • 4.0 fWhat’s more, another one added, from a retooling or new-job perspective, thanks to our the latest generation of software what had once taken almost three days can now take as little as a few hours.
  • One said that, while certain low-skill jobs may disappear, better paying and more secure jobs will be created by manufacturing’s increased reliance on technology. What’s more, he added, a different type of worker is going to be attracted to factory work. Where the industrial sector once countless drew linear-thinking, task-oriented people, the level of automation along with our growing reliance on computers and cutting edge software is going to entice conceptual thinkers, bright young technical minds, and even gamers.
  • One employee told me he thought that the move to automation might actually be harder on management than the rank and file since it’s all going to be about making the right investment in the right technologies. You don’t want to be investing hundreds of thousands of dollars of precious capital in manufacturing’s version of the Betamax player or the Blackberry.
  • Finally, one said, even though people all talk about Manufacturing 4.0 bringing about these “radical” changes in the manufacturing process, the simple fact is that’s not how things ever seem to play out in real life. They constantly change to be sure, but they do so at a rate often so slow and steady that it’s not until you look back a year or two later that you realize the extent to which things (and how you do your job) have evolved.

4.0 gIf you’re in management or a shop owner and have not yet had a sitdown with those on your shop floor about technology, robotics, automation and the rapidly changing demands on the American factory worker, I urge you to do so, and soon. You may realize, as I did, it’s not them who need to get up to speed. It’s you.

What’s more, you’ll likely discover a level of anticipation and excitement on their part that may just do much more than comfort you.

It may just inspire you.

 

A version of this blog post originally appeared in August/September 2016 edition of Manufacturing Today magazine.

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