Anyone who is interested in how manufacturing jobs are evolving (and disappearing) should be sure to read Adam Davidson’s excellent article in the current issue of The Atlantic: “Making it in America.” The article is based on interviews with workers and executives at Standard Motor Products, a manufacturer and distributor of auto parts with a factory in Greenville, South Carolina.
Here’s a quote from the article, focusing on the future prospects for an unskilled worker named Maddie:
Tony [the factory manager] points out that Maddie has a job for two reasons. First, when it comes to making fuel injectors, the company saves money and minimizes product damage by having both the precision and non-precision work done in the same place. Even if Mexican or Chinese workers could do Maddie’s job more cheaply, shipping fragile, half-finished parts to another country for processing would make no sense. Second, Maddie is cheaper than a machine. It would be easy to buy a robotic arm that could take injector bodies and caps from a tray and place them precisely in a laser welder. Yet Standard would have to invest about $100,000 on the arm and a conveyance machine to bring parts to the welder and send them on to the next station. As is common in factories, Standard invests only in machinery that will earn back its cost within two years. For Tony, it’s simple: Maddie makes less in two years than the machine would cost, so her job is safe—for now. If the robotic machines become a little cheaper, or if demand for fuel injectors goes up and Standard starts running three shifts, then investing in those robots might make sense.As the article makes clear, Maddie has a job largely because she is still cheaper than installing automation equipment — assuming a two-year payback period for the equipment. But now consider that just last year the Boston Globe reported that start-up company Heartland Robotics expects to introduce a manufacturing robot that will sell for around $5,000. The cost of automating jobs like Maddie’s seems likely to fall quite dramatically in the relatively near future. At a cost of $5,000 — or even $10,000 — a robot could easily pay for itself within a matter of months.
“What worries people in factories is electronics, robots,” she tells me. “If you don’t know jack about computers and electronics, then you don’t have anything in this life anymore. One day, they’re not going to need people; the machines will take over. People like me, we’re not going to be around forever.”
Now here’s another quote from the article focusing on a skilled operator named Luke. Luke runs computer-controlled “Gildemeister” machines, which cut precision parts used in fuel injectors:
After six semesters studying machine tooling, including endless hours cutting metal in the school workshop, Luke, like almost everyone who graduates, got a job at a nearby factory, where he ran machines similar to the Gildemeisters. When Luke got hired at Standard, he had two years of technical schoolwork and five years of on-the-job experience, and it took one more month of training before he could be trusted alone with the Gildemeisters. All of which is to say that running an advanced, computer-controlled machine is extremely hard. Luke now works the weekend night shift, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.The conventional wisdom, of course, is that while Maddie’s job may well be in danger at some point, Luke has little to worry about. Demand for skilled machine operators is strong and is likely to increase in the future. But is that really the way things will play out?
When things are going well, the Gildemeisters largely run themselves, but things don’t always go well. Every five minutes or so, Luke takes a finished part to the testing station—a small table with a dozen sets of calipers and other precision testing tools—to make sure the machine is cutting “on spec,” or matching the requirements of the run. Standard’s rules call for a random part check at least once an hour. “I don’t wait the whole hour before I check another part,” Luke says. “That’s stupid. You could be running scrap for the whole hour.”
Any time workers are highly paid and in short supply, there is a clear incentive for innovation that will either eliminate those workers or “dumb down” the job so it can be done by less skilled people....MORE