Sunday, March 06, 2011

Manufacturing is Still Alive and Well in the United States: But It Has Gone High-Tech and High-Skilled

Here's an MSNBC News story about America's new, high-tech manufacturing, and how community colleges are training new high-skilled manufacturing workers for the 21st century.  Here's an important point: 25-30 years ago, U.S. manufacturing was "80% brawn and 20% brains," and today it's "10% brawn and 90% brains."  That's another way of saying that we're able to produce increasing amounts of factory output in the U.S. with fewer and fewer workers, as the productivity of American manufacturing workers has tripled since the 1970s. 

12 Comments:

At 3/06/2011 2:36 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

Manufacturing has gone very hi-tech. Basic production machine operators have to use a mouse on a computer screen or touch a button on a computer screen to select which part the machine will make and which robot will put into which shipping rack. If you don't have those skills, employers cannot afford to hire you.

 
At 3/06/2011 2:55 PM, Blogger randian said...

If you don't have those skills, employers cannot afford to hire you.

What skills? Pushing a button hardly requires skill. All the skill went into engineering the production equipment so it was easy to use.

I remember when it took real skill to use a manual-punch cash register at high enough speed to keep long store lines moving at a good pace, and with 100% accuracy to boot. Now any dunce can wave a UPC in front of a laser, which makes unionized cashiers sick jokes.

 
At 3/06/2011 4:03 PM, Blogger juandos said...

"I remember when it took real skill to use a manual-punch cash register at high enough speed to keep long store lines moving at a good pace, and with 100% accuracy to boot"...

Hmmm, back when kids who were in school or had just graduated high school could actually do simple arithmetic in their heads because it was part of the mandated curriculum could work those registers with ease...

Now a days (and for quite some time now) I'm amazed at how young people seem to be totally flummoxed at having to tackle fractions...

 
At 3/06/2011 5:25 PM, Blogger Walt G. said...

randian,

You have to push the right button at the right time. It's not that easy. For example, reverse is backward when you are on the up stroke, but forward when you are on the down stroke. You mess that up and it's a $10,000 robot wrist in the garbage can and 2 hours downtime. At 40-strokes-a-minutes that 1.5 seconds to make the right decision including reaction time (that's $57,600 downtime ($12 part) + $10,000 wrist + $130 labor (2 guys @ 2 hours) to fix or $67,730 total mistake). This also shows why labor is not a huge input into the production process anymore (went from 50-60% direct labor cost to 10-20% direct labor cost in the last 20 years).

The machine control systems are like the space shuttle, and they do not always do what they are supposed to do. I am watching NASCAR right now. Does the driver have anything to do whether the car wins or not? Somebody else engineered the car, right?

juandos, I gave a cashier $5.16 for an order that was $3.91, and asked to get only quarters back. I frustrated her so much doing that I got back 9 quarters. I think I will change my profession.

 
At 3/06/2011 9:09 PM, Blogger randian said...

I am watching NASCAR right now. Does the driver have anything to do whether the car wins or not? Somebody else engineered the car, right?

Anything? Yes. Primary responsibility? No. The team is far more important than the driver. Do tire changes get executed? Is the car reliable? Is fuel management sound?

I watch Formula 1. The driver isn't totally irrelevant, but they are nearly so. The best driver in a backmarker team will still be a backmarker. Not even Ayrton Senna could turn an Arrows into a McLaren.

 
At 3/06/2011 9:20 PM, Blogger Johnster said...

Walt

If you can do basic algebra in your head, you probably wouldn't be a cashier. Only teenagers and those with absolutely no useful skills whatsoever would stay a cashier for any significant amount of time.

 
At 3/07/2011 6:55 AM, Blogger Walt G. said...

randian,

Yes, the team is more important than the indivudaul, but it only takes one person to mess the team up. The chain is only as strong as the weakest link.

Our operators who "are just pushing buttons" are operating multimillion dollar machines with an expected 1 year proficiency in the progammable logic controllers (PLCs). It takes 4 to 8 years to get that 1 year experience rotating 4 to 8 jobs per day. What you gain in flexibilty, you lose in specialization, but you keep skilled trades employed fixing the crashes.

Johnster,

I would not consider addition and subtraction to be algebra. I think the cashier's boss would consider being able to correctly give 5 quarters in change instead of 9 a useful skill.

 
At 3/07/2011 9:59 AM, Blogger juandos said...

" Does the driver have anything to do whether the car wins or not? Somebody else engineered the car, right?"...

Well Walt G I've met half a dozen NASCAR drivers over the last couple of decades and I was shocked just how well grounded the drivers are in a variety sophisticated engineering disciplines...

There's something a bit jarring about some guy talking with a hard core hill billy speech pattern and all the while chalking up partial differential equations on the blackboard that describe the aerodynamics of his various air dams for different track conditions...

Regarding the cashier situation its funny you should mention that...

I was at a Walmart three days ago and bought 38.81 worth of t-shirts, socks, and a sweat shirt...

I gave the cashier two twenties and I got 11 cents back in change...

I asked the gal to refigure my change...

She actually took out a pen a piece of paper and did some scribbling on it...

Then she gave another 10 dollar bill, a single, and eight pennies...

I gave up and just left with the 'enhanced' change...

 
At 3/07/2011 10:37 AM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

Johnster: "Only teenagers and those with absolutely no useful skills whatsoever would stay a cashier for any significant amount of time."

I once believed that was true.

Over the 15 years I owned retail businesses, I employed a number of college graduates as counter workers. The median length of employment of such graduates was about two years, and a couple stayed with me for over five years.

My 49-year-old sister is right now a Walmart cashier. She's also a college graduate, and very intelligent. Walmart has offerred her better jobs, but she's turned them down. For some reason she is content to continue working as a cashier, with only minimal responsibilities.

Not everyone with aptitude remains motivated for higher achievement throughout their lives.

 
At 3/07/2011 1:38 PM, Blogger UrbanBard said...

Randian, Do you remember how the author had said that manufacturing was now 90% brains and 10% brawn? One necessary part of technological improvement was to automate the lowly paid gunge jobs out of existence. This was also necessary because minimum wage and child labor laws destroyed our apprentice systems. America retired our last Tool and Die worker in the 1970s, so technology had to replace their years of experience.

We are almost upon the technological revolution where products will be manufactured one atom at a time via nanotechnology. Most of the skill and ability needed is mental rather than manual dexterity. Cad /Cam machines do most of the drawing. They can translate the three dimensional drawings to instructions for an automatic lathe or milling machine. Software can check for strengths of materials to uncover flaws in the design. Most of this would be instinctive for the Tool and Dies worker, but he is dead now.

The point is that labor has changed and increasingly robots replace human hands. Humans aren’t cut out of the loop. They are reassigned to tasks which machines cannot do. The result is that products are better made than ever before and consume fewer human hours to design and build. Hence, we still have manufacturing in America and it remains about the same percentage of the economy as in years past, but fewer people are employed in it.

The same could be said of farming; 150 years ago, 90% of Americans were engaged in farming; now less than 5% are. Have we lost anything from this? Food used to consist of 40% of our household budget and now consumes 5%.

 
At 3/07/2011 5:22 PM, Blogger Sean said...

juandos,
Hmmm, back when kids who were in school or had just graduated high school could actually do simple arithmetic in their heads because it was part of the mandated curriculum could work those registers with ease...

And yet my son in kindergarten is learning how to read graphs in public school (in Massachusetts). It's definitely interesting to watch changes in educatoinal emphasis over time.

 
At 3/07/2011 5:25 PM, Blogger Sean said...

UrbanBard,

You're a bit optimistic in terms of real and flexibe nano-manufacturing happening for a while yet. But if we have that and computers with more processing power than people (also coming), I'm really not sure the economy will need people anymore, except as owners and in certain creative niches.

 

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