The Twentieth was the Century of Mass Production. Think about it. Practically nothing that took place from 1900 to 2000, good and bad, could have happened without mass production. Don’t just think cars and airplanes. Think coffee makers, tennis shoes, aspirin, Best Buy, floor tiles, the Moon, asphalt, Kool-Aid™, the Village People; think everything. Everything about our lives in the past century was made possible by the advent of the assembly line.
Which leads to a problem. That word, specifically. “Assembly.”
The other thing that happened in the 20th Century is that people started equating “manufacturing” with “assembly.” I live in Michigan, which means that I can’t swing a cat without hitting something automotive; if you live elsewhere you probably never heard the adage “you can always get a good-paying job for life at the Fisher Body plant.” There was a time, a long time, during the 20th Century that it was true. The pay was good, there was job security; you could make a solid living, buy a house, and tell your kids that they could always get themselves a job at the Fisher Body plant.
Here’s the plant today.
For most of the 20th Century, America’s manufacturing might came from its ability to rapidly, cheaply assemble things, in quantity. Assembly is putting things together. It’s turning a screw on a line. But today, in America, there aren’t many assembling jobs left. They’ve gone to China for all the same reasons they were once here: China can put a lot of people into a fairly tedious job and pay them what today we’d consider not much of a wage. Companies look at the bottom line and realize that it’s cheaper to assemble stuff in China. Hence, the Fisher Body plant.
We want manufacturing, not assembly. Assembly’s so 20th Century.
“Manufacturing,” now, that’s something different. Manufacturing is a concept as much as it is an activity. There was manufacturing for millennia before the assembly line was conceived. In fact, the Latin roots of the word – manus and facere – literally mean “to make by hand.” Of course, back in the day, manufacturing tended to be craft-based, and skill-based. A furniture maker in 1300 may have had a factory, but the people working there knew how to make furniture, and the owner couldn’t just retool and start making church bells. What assembly did was remove skill from manufacturing.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve already said, were it not for the assembly line, almost nothing about the modern age would be the same. But culturally we do need to recognize that our competitiveness and our economy can no longer depend on mere assembly. When politicians say “We need to bring manufacturing back to America,” what most people hear (and what the pols mean) is that we need to get those assembly lines back. They see it this way not because they’re dense but because for a hundred years, we’ve thought of manufacturing and assembly as the same thing. And they’re not.
We need to bring manufacturing back to America. But not in the form of the assembly line, in the form of Smart Manufacturing. The 21st Century will bring a completely different meaning to the idea of manufacturing. We know it’ll be digital, virtual, innovative. So are all the people who assemble things out of luck? Only if they refuse to accept the new opportunities or insist on going backwards. Instead, what we need to do is rethink the idea of manufacturing, to forget the 20th Century and start looking forward to the 21st. New skills, new approaches, new chances to innovate. And the best part is that Smart Manufacturing can be responsible for gazillions of jobs.
Every job at a traditional, assembly line type of manufacturer creates one and a half non-manufacturing jobs. The cop or the hotel manager or what have you – the careers that wouldn’t exist if there weren’t a plant in town.
Tomorrow’s manufacturing, the non-assembly kind, will likely employ fewer people directly. But it more than evens out when you consider that Smart Manufacturing creates three to six indirect jobs per employee, not one and a half. Certainly there will be difficulties in the road ahead, insofar as much of the workforce will need to adopt new skills and new capabilities. Turning our back on the concept of manufacturing-as-assembly means rethinking a century-old definition. The solution, then, is to look at it from a glass half full perspective.
Those robots that do all the assembly today? In this country and others? From one perspective those robots killed jobs. But from another perspective, from the correct perspective, the robots created jobs. Because someone has to build the robots. Someone has to design them. Someone has to paint them. Someone has to fix them when they break. Someone has to manage the Home Depot where all those other someones go on weekends. And on and on it goes.
The axiom that “the world will always need ditch diggers” is now proven wrong. We’ll always need ditches, but we’ve got robots to dig them for us. Seriously, though, who would want to be off digging a ditch when they could be doing cool stuff with robots? Yes, manufacturing as it has existed in America is gone and not coming back. We have to accept that; we have to move forward because we can’t move back. But manufacturing as it will exist in America is so rife with new opportunity that soon the idea of assembly lines will just be a fond memory.
The bad news is that in the year 2112 manufacturing will be something other than digital and virtual and we’ll have to get our heads around that. But hey, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.