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.

Manufacturing 4.0: A Rising Tide to Float All Boats

MFG 4.0gWe’ve heard the horror stories. Manufacturing 4.0 will be a nightmare. It will destroy all that’s good about American industry (if not our country itself and our vibrant , working class); all in the name of progress.  And it will be an industrialized version of some creepy Orwellian vision in which workers are rendered unneeded by an army of heartless and soulless (but not mindless) robots, and where – fueled by increased production and slashed costs – both unemployment and corporate profits rocket skyward.

But I’m not buying those tales of worker doom and despair, any of them. And not by a long shot.  Because more than fear, hyperbole and wild conjecture, I believe in something far more compelling and something with a much more compelling track record for predicting future behavior. I believe, as much as anything else, in the tried-and-true wisdom of the marketplace.

MFG 4.0I believe (and have been shown again and again) that all doomsday predictions and worst-case scenarios will ultimately be declawed, defanged and downright disemboweled by a phenomenon only slightly less certain than those two old standbys, death and taxes: an irrepressible little market force called supply-and-demand.

Yes, in Manufacturing 4.0 workers will be challenged as never before as technology continues to encroach on what, for a full century, has always been their sacred turf.  And, yes, many of them will fall victim to our sector’s ever-growing reliance on cutting edge technology.

But those industrial workers who do fall victim to what is proving to be a tidal wave of automation will all have at least one thing in common. They will all go down firmly believing in the clearly defined boundaries of their own skills and will spend the rest of their days utterly convinced they know everything they need to know to qualify for a good-paying job in the manufacturing sector.

MFG 4.0aFor years, one of my mantras has been that our workers need to wake up to (and fully embrace) a concept that many of our most prudent and progressive educators have long espoused.  It’s a wonderful concept called “lifelong learning,” and it is the process by which students no longer view their own body of knowledge as a static entity, but instead spend their lives in the constant pursuit of ways to build on it.

Similarly, I’ve long embraced a second mantra: one that holds that seismic shifts in any marketplace create untold occasions for both individual growth and new business opportunities.  Because (once again, as it’s been proven more often than I care to count) for all the doors that technology promises to slam shut on workers’ faces, it will kick open that many more.

MFG 4.0cThis is where the whole supply-and-demand thing comes in. Because as industrial jobs become scarcer and more reliant on specific knowledge and skill sets, the wisdom of the marketplace will demand that more and more employees upgrade and modernize their skills.   And in the process, much like rising tides and floating boats, our entire sector will reap the benefits.  American manufacturing will get significantly stronger.  It will become more nimble.  And, above all, it will become better qualified to stay ahead of the constantly changing demands of today’s global marketplace.

But before any of that can happen, our sector’s workers need to take a good hard look in the mirror and embrace one simple but unflinching truth; they need to start getting retrained, and the sooner the better.  And they need to understand too that, while there will be new jobs opening in manufacturing and heavy industry, relatively few of them will be on the shop floor.

The nature of our business is constantly changing, along with the technology driving it.  As a result, the physical making of products (a responsibility being assumed with greater frequency by sophisticated machines) will require less in the way of human capital.  But at the same time, disciplines like product design & development, sales, research, marketing, finance, logistics and client support, service and training will not only grow in importance, they will represent tremendous opportunities for anyone willing to be trained to do them.

MFG 4.0bWhat’s more, as client lists and target markets diversify and become more international in nature, being bi-lingual, which was likely always considered a quaint talent by certain employers, will suddenly become a marketable job skill.

The jobs, in other words will be there.  They just won’t look and feel the way they do today.

In their book, Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the 21st Century, Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston contend the “college for everyone” myth is finally being exposed for the fraud it is, and that labor – skilled labor – represents one of the great growth areas in today’s (and tomorrow’s) job market.

MFG 4.0fIt’s not that the loss of jobs in Manufacturing 4.0 should scare today’s labors and factory workers. After all, in a world driven by automation, speed-to-market, manufacturing-on-demand and ultra-lean production there will always be a need for skilled, qualified workers.

MFG 4.0eNo, what should scare them is that little voice inside their head telling them they already know everything they need.

Note:  A version of this blog post originally appeared in June/July 2016 edition of Manufacturing Today magazine.

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.