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.

The Real Danger of Campaign Rhetoric

Mario CuomoFormer New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose.  The implication being that candidates may wax eloquent and use all sorts of haughty language about pie-in-the-sky ideas and fringy ideologies while running for office, but all that rhetoric and all those empty promises and ideologies invariably come crashing to the ground whenever the winner places his campaign rhetoric his rear view mirror and assumes the day-in and day-out responsibilities of the job.

And whatever truth Cuomo’s words held when he said them has only been ramped up this election; in fact, to an almost unprecedented degree. This year’s unlikeliest of presidential campaigns has tapped into a level of pent-up populism and displaced workingman anxiety that we’ve not seen since the Great Depression.

One particular candidate on the far left and another on the far right are not only not going away, they’re threatening to change politics forever in this country. And in the process they’re taking their respective party’s longstanding status quo and power structure and turning them on their head.

Donald TrumpBut all that populism, while so real its downright palpable, has proven to be a slippery slope.  Because it has emboldened candidates across the board to say things that, while making headlines and drawing roaring howls of approval, are at their best economically unlikely, and at their worst economically dangerous.

Listen to the rhetoric.  To hear them say it, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton would ban fracking yesterday.  Donald Trump would impose broad and sweeping tariffs and (for all practical purposes) seal us off from the world.  And Ted Cruz would make it his business to deport millions of American workers.

Such ideas are insane and would end up inflicting far more damage to U.S. businesses like mine than the “problems” they’re designed to target. Don’t believe me?  Consider: the strength of my business is directly tied to the price of oil. Not only that, but I have developed a customer base that now represents the four corners of the globe. And finally, not too long ago I lost a valued, dedicated and long-term employee to a random, capricious, and entirely unnecessary overreach by the U.S. State Department.

I’ve lived, in other words, the realities of so much of this year’s very pointed campaign rhetoric.

Ted CruzBut it’s not just me.  It’s the bankers.

For better or for worse (and like it or not), banks – and not businesses – are the drivers of this economy.  The bankers believe in you, they have confidence in your company, and they detect a level of certainty and predictability in the marketplace, they will open the spigot and dispense their cash to job creators.  Look at what’s happening in Detroit. The banks, after so many years of refusing to lend money to entrepreneurs, small businessmen, and homeowners, have started to see the Motor City as a now-stabilizing and now-intriguing growth opportunity — and, as a result, they have begun doling out their money accordingly.  That’s why so many economists finally, and at long last, feel there may be substance to all those Detroit-has-turned-the-corner stories.

Bernie SandersBut if any of the crazy campaign ideas now being bandied about were to ever take root, if only for a month, an almost seismic amount of damage would be inflicted on the economy. Ban fracking, wall us off from the rest of the world, tax my customers so much they start looking elsewhere, or deport a few million of our economy’s hardest working and lowest paid workers, and watch what happens.  The banks will get antsy, they’ll close their pockets, and we’ll see our changing-but-still-healthy economy come to a halt so quickly and so abruptly we’d not only face the prospect of a recession, we’d likely suffer whiplash.

Look, empty campaign promises are nothing new.  In fact, they’re as much a part of winning office as kissing babies. But this year in particular, all those empty promises and pithy sound bytes have managed to achieve a level of traction rarely before seen on the American campaign trail.  And the danger is, because of their populist appeal those promises have emboldened those making them to actually be foolish enough to drink their own Kool-Aid.

And while most successful candidates have always been wise enough to park the poetry at the door and  govern in prose, this year – as we’ve seen time and time again – is almost without precedent.  The candidates feel more likely (and emboldened) than ever to attempt to actually institute their wacky, populist, touch-a-raw-nerve ideas.

LendingWill it happen? Who knows?  But I know this; as a small business owner who relies heavily on (and is deeply invested in) the global marketplace, I sure as hell will be waiting with bated breath to watch what unfolds.

And, at least in that regard, I won’t be alone. Because as sure as you’re reading this, there will be any number of bankers right there with me.