Opinion: Where Is Automation in Manufacturing Headed?

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Opinion: Where Is Automation in Manufacturing Headed?

by Vera Ketelboeter

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 13, No. 6, November-December 1981, p. 16 — 18

Vera Ketelboeter is working on issues of automation in the workplace. She is a member of Boston SftP.

Over the past decade the manufacturing industry has undergone a silent revolution in automation. Ten years ago, automation meant a few individual workstations, widely dispersed over the shopfloor. By 1981, their number has grown exponentially. Especially in large manufacturing companies, much of the old machinery is already replaced by automated tools.

Less visible than the new machinery are the social changes which occur in the process of automation. Labor is now facing reductions in the workforce, layoffs, transfers and changes in job skill requirements. Each time a new piece of machinery is introduced, a few more workers are affected. Over time, these effects have accumulated. We are now confronted with an advanced stage of automation. 

Manufacturing Technology

We have to understand some of the automation equipment in order to be able to judge what its impact may be. Most of the new machine tools are NC and CNC (Numerical Control and Computer Numeric Control). They are machining stations, mostly used to cut metal or a workpiece by milling, drilling, boring or lathing. NC- and CNC-equipment can be operated by a single person.

Machining complexes, in which a number of machining stations are connected into one big system are more advanced. These systems can automatically move workpieces, like heavy engine blocks or transmissions cases from one machining station to the next. These systems take a raw part at one end and spit out a perfectly finished product at the other end. Where systems like this exist, whole sections of the plant are automated. People on those machines are needed only to set the machine up before operation begins, to supervise the operation and to intervene in case something goes wrong. Compared with conventional machine tools, these complexes save up to four fifths of the workforce.

Robots are the latest equipment in automation. Few robots are yet installed. But very soon they will be used to automate some highly skilled jobs. Robots can weld; discriminate different parts by touch or by vision; and handle parts, lift them and place them in specific positions.

With the current advances in technology, engineers are on the way towards total automation. The totally automated, “unmanned” factory is an expressed goal which manufacturing engineers are trying to achieve, and any partial automation is seen as a move in this direction. Apparently, some totally automated factories exist already, for example, one IBM plant which manufactures computer chips.

It takes more than engineering skill to convert established industries to automation. To an engineer, the plain possibility that something can be built may justify an attempt to do it. The construction of automated plants is not just a technical project, it is also a social conversion on a large scale, affecting many people’s jobs. Engineers, however, are largely disconnected from the social realities of automation. 

Arguments for Technological Use

The basic argument for automation is that productivity can be increased. This means that more parts can be produced in less time or for lower production costs. Yet productivity with all its cost factors is difficult if not impossible to measure. Studies have shown that increased productivity is not always a result of the use of automation equipment; in some circumstances automation seems less productive than conventional technology. In other cases, initially projected costs were overrun by more than 100%. Many uncertainties are hidden in the financial arguments about automation. In general, managerial expectations about the return of investments in automation are overly optimistic.

A second argument for the use of automation is high precision in doing the job. Already Japanese companies are praising their cars for higher quality. For example, tighter shutting doors are attributed to the use of robotics in the production. With automation there will be no more “Monday cars,” which supposedly have a lower quality because workers are less attentive on Mondays than on other days. Other products cannot even be manufactured by people alone (without the help of automated tools) because of limits in human abilities. Among such products are integrated circuits for computers, which must be manufactured with extremely fine precision and regularity. 

Social Consequences

All new computerized technologies have directly or indirectly affected the nature of work and the number of workers on the job. Many jobs are eliminated, others are changed. Skills and knowledge which used to belong to workers have been absorbed by machines, such that machines do what workers used to do. Some people are still required for machine tending jobs, but far fewer than previously.

One worker may be assigned to several machines, but the operator’s impact on the actual operation of the machine is generally reduced. Workers are losing the close and flexible contact with their tools and with the products they make. One might say that human craft is being lost. It is this loss of contact and control, not the size and complexity of the machines themselves, which diminishes the jobs of machine operators.

The connection between unemployment and automation is often denied by management. Business argues that automation is creating employment by opening up new jobs for designers and builders of automated equipment. Yet those who are losing jobs and those who are gaining new jobs are two different groups — a fact which is rarely mentioned. Job changes, skill transfer, and employment shifts are treated as if they happen automatically.

These changes take place at a great social cost. People are moving around the country, forced to look for new jobs and new lives. Many people find it difficult or impossible to make such changes. When economists promote plant closings in less profitable industries and the growth of industries in the “Sunbelt” (Southwest), they assume that mass migration is easy. A lack of concern for social realities has been created by the drive for efficiency. 

Driving Forces of Automation

Given these social consequences, why is the drive toward automation proceeding so relentlessly? Why is the push for technology so strong in the face of social realities? The technical arguments are not satisfactory. Deeper answers to the above questions are to be found in the politics, the ambitions, and perceptions of the supporters of the technology.

Automation allows machines to do what people used to do. It represents a shift of control from people to machines. But this shift of control has to be reinterpreted in the organizational context.

Machining decisions and actions, as far as they are executed by machines, are never entirely autonomous, but are always under some person’s responsibility. In many cases this responsibility is no longer with the worker who operates a machine. The job is not to control the machine, but to watch over limited aspects of the machine functions. Instead programmers or designers of the machine, who operate from somewhere outside the shop, are assigned responsibility over the machine based on their technical knowledge. The programming department and the process design and process control departments are likely to draw knowledge and control further away from the manufacturing environment. What kinds of skills are assigned to machine operators, whether and how those skills can be acquired, and how much control an operator has, depends on the company politics.

Technology in its advanced forms is surrounded by an air of fascination and excitement. This fascination should not be underestimated in its impact. It influences managerial decisions in the way automation decisions are arrived at. Donald Gerwin did some studies about the introduction of Flexible Manufacturing Systems, “state of the art” workstations complexes. He found that management is usually sold on the idea to use such systems by an engineer in the company who is enthusiastic about the technology. Cost justifications play a secondary role. The more sophisticated and fascinating a machine is the less management is likely to quarrel about dollars. One Flexible Manufacturing System (installation included) costs $20 million. The technical qualities seem to warrant its right to exist. From a different perspective, this fascination, which gives the taste of the irrational, is grounded in some concrete interest of the engineer. His/her professional existence is directly dependent on continual technological innovation. If technology were no longer advanced, the expertise of technologists would no longer be needed. Engineers, therefore, are biased towards technical solutions.

The managerial interest in gaining tighter control over the workforce and the professional bias of engineers are important forces in the automation drive. Both managerial and engineering interests have been hidden beneath the mystique of technology, the ideology of progress, and the goal of economic strength. 

Two Worlds: Designers and Workers

Automation can take place only where work processes are highly routinized. A frequent assumption made by managers and designers of technology is that production processes are very regular and that it is only a matter of recognizing and formalizing the routines, after which automation can be brought into place. Not considered is the tacit knowledge of workers, which feeds into the production and without which production would frequently come to a halt. This knowledge is based on longstanding experience in the manufacturing environment.

Michael Piori wrote in an essay on training: “Jobs literally exist only as work performed.” In other words, jobs are not those sequences of steps which are formulated by process designers and which set guidelines for the execution of a job, but jobs are much richer. A worker has to respond with some creativity to irregularities in the product or in the machine tool. Many of the things one does are an immediate response to the situation. S/he may feel that the casting of a part is thicker than usual and requires a different tool to work with, or that the machine vibrates in a strange way, or that a tool has gone dull sooner than expected. In many ways the worker’s feel is indispensible for a smooth production. Enforced control of workers may deprive a company of a valuable and vital part of its production skills. In the future progress of automation, it will become apparent how essential the tacit knowledge of workers is for production.

Presently in the U.S., technology and production processes are exclusively defined by engineers and management in technical positions. From there technology invades the shop environment, whether it is welcome or not, and imposes new rules of work and behavior on the shopfloor people. No communication takes place between designers with their technical expertise and workers with their production experience, when technology is designed. It is only when new process technology enters the shop that design and production experience meet each other. Then, to make technology work on the shop, workers often have to initiate modifications ranging from minor adjustments to major design changes. Yet the scientific process of design and the processes of work are strictly divided among different groups of people. While the division has political reasons, it is grounded in different values and ways of approaching the world.

Automation cuts across the two worlds of designers and workers into the realms of values, mentality, life philosophy, and ambitions. Little exchange or communication takes place between the two. The world of management and technologists proceeds with the designer attitude toward the shopfloor, designing the technical processes as well as workers’ processes. In contrast, workers with their different backgrounds of thinking and hands-on experience have a different outlook on production. Production to them is an endeavour like a craft, which is based on the arts, the knowledge of which is acquired in the process of doing it on a day-to-day basis.

In our culture and in our organizations, the rational and the arts-based worlds are clashing. The rational world imposes the rules, not allowing for the development of artistic ideas, which in some other cultures is regarded as the “natural birthright of self-determination.” In the same vein, human or social concerns are secondary to rational goals. The problems of rising unemployment and the loss of artistry and original knowledge are subsumed by the rationality of the designs of the new world.

Many people are trapped into thinking of automation as the necessary condition for a vaguely conceived betterment of social conditions. Personal sacrifices are too easily accepted in the name of abstract goals of automation.

We have to outgrow the childish relations we have nurtured with technology, trusting it blindly (or hating it blindly, as some do). Technology needs to be recognized as coming from the people who shape it according to their ideas. On human grounds, technology can then be questioned. The technological process, as any social process, should be taken as an invitation to participate.

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