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.


What Happened to Dreaming Big?

SennAs many of you know, I live in Chicago.   But what many may not know is that my hometown is home to some of the most remarkable high school structures in the country.  I drive around, look at such sprawling, stately building such as Lane Tech, St. Ignatius and Senn High, and I find myself simply amazed at their physical grace, their stunning detail, and for lack of a better term, their architectural majesty.

But what’s most amazing about the majority of these high schools is that they were constructed at the most unlikeliest of times to commit so much capital, so many man-hours, and such mountains of resources to their construction. Some were built during World War I, others during the Depression, and almost all of them when America was still a fledgling, teetering and largely agrarian economy.

Hoover DamYet back then, our grandparents and great grandparents were bound and determined to build the best schools possible because they knew that education was going to be the key to a better life for their children and their children’s children.  It was the key that promised to unlock the untapped and still-slumbering greatness that lied buried deep within the soul of this country.

They may just have been farmers and factory workers.  And they may have had their life savings not in things like T-bills, mutual funds or IRAs, but in cookie jars and cigar boxes.  But they were willing to do something that it now seems we’ve stopped doing in this country.

Empire State constructionThey dared to dream big.

Why do I say we’ve apparently stopped dreaming big?  Look no further than the still-unresolved issue of America’s decaying infrastructure.  Look, we know our infrastructure has been slowly rotting away for a while.  Heck, I’ve been screaming about it fact for years.

And even if a word had never been written about the issue, the eye test alone could have told you our infrastructure was rotting.  (Plus, there’s been all the decay we couldn’t see, as evidenced by Flint, Michigan’s network of water pipes that we now know is slowing but surely killing its residents).

Decaying InfrastructureAnd we know too that (literally) trillions of taxpayer dollars are going to be needed to either repair or replace so many of this country’s bridges, tunnels, power and water lines.

But even if we didn’t know any of that, and even if we’d had our head buried in the sand for the past two decades, all we would have had to have done is look at the 2013 Infrastructure Report Card that issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers that gave the very backbone of our nation’s economy an embarrassingly low grade of D+.

Golden Gate constructionSure at some point over the past eight years I would have loved to have seen the Obama Administration propose a New Deal-like program that would have put thousands of men and women back to work rebuilding our infrastructure, while at the same time teaching countless un- and underemployed Americans critical job skills and instilling in them a real sense of purpose, work ethic and achievement.

But that’s not the point of this essay.

Palm IslandsThe point is this:  American manufacturers are competing in a global economy and selling to a 21st Century global marketplace.  Why, in god’s name, are we still operating with a 20th Century mindset and why do we continue to nickel-and-dime over what remains a 20th Century infrastructure?

Why aren’t we dreaming bigger?  Why aren’t we thinking bolder?  Where, for example, are the plans for this century’s Hoover Dam, this century’s Golden Gate Bridge or this century’s Tennessee Valley Authority?

China infrastructureThat previous generation of Americans reached for the stars and dared to try the impossible.  Sure, they sometimes failed.  But dammit, they tried.  What’s more, they did all that dreaming knowing that the benefits of their labors and sacrifice would create a rising economic tide that would float all boats – not just their own.

Want to feel ashamed about the state of America’s infrastructure? Look what China is now doing. Look what India is doing.  Look what Brazil is doing. For all their economic missteps – and, believe me, they continue to make more than their share – they are doing one thing very right.  They are all re-imagining the very idea of infrastructure.  Each is designing and building 21st bridges, tunnels, roads, ports and networks, and each is embracing and harnessing 21st Century energy sources — all with both eyes fixed squarely on the 21st Century global marketplace.

China HS RailNow is not the time for us to rant and rave about things like small government and balanced budgets.  Now is not the time for us to nickel-and-dime one another or to place our personal politics ahead of the common good.

Now is the time to invest – and I mean invest collectively.  And now is the time to put our government to work doing what it does best: taking care of its people.

Now, more than ever, is the time for Washington to hire this country’s dreamers and to unleash them to do what they have always done best. Dream big.

China BridgeBecause dreaming big and dreaming bold is how we are going to erect a 21st Century infrastructure in this country, my friends — one that will be able to withstand the pressures and the promise of the 21st Century marketplace.  And that, I promise you, is America’s last best hope to remain the leader of this new global economy.