The Times They Are A-Changin',Part 2

13 Sep, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

The changing faces of manufacturing -- smarter people and machines

In this two-part series, we’re focusing on the areas in manufacturing that seem most likely to change — the automotive sector, in particular. After all the changes that the United States’ manufacturing industry has endured, especially in regards to increasing global competition during the past several years, it finally seems to be poised to become a world leader again.

Last week, we discussed the more widespread use of software for designing digital manufacturing plants that are more productive and flexible, but smaller in physical size, as well as the decreasing number of workstations required in manufacturing plants. This time around, we’ll cover the evolving requirements and role of the factory worker, as well as the increasing prevalence of robots. Finally, we’ll discuss how all of these factors will make tomorrow’s factory more productive and competitive.

The People Proposition

It’s not surprising that as manufacturing plants reduce their number of workstations, the number of production workers will decrease and the number of robots will increase. Although there will be fewer human production workers, many that remain may well be more highly paid, because they will likely be assembling modules that were typically pre-assembled before reaching the production line.

In the future, beyond blue- versus white-collar, salaried versus hourly and union versus non-union workers, I think that the production line will be staffed by a two-tier system: full-time workers and contractors. The first person I heard this view from was Jeffrey Liker, a researcher at the University of Michigan who studies organizational behavior and human adaptation.

The full-time worker will be a highly skilled team member, with significant levels of troubleshooting and team-forming abilities, whose employer will likely invest in continued training and job security. The contractors would be self-employed journeymen and would be responsible for their own training and job security.

Some educational courses that would be worthwhile include manufacturing technology, software engineering, machining and assembly techniques, controller programming, inventory management and a second language.

Higher levels of education will be required of virtually all production-line workers. A more-educated workforce is not only more productive, it’s also more adaptable to an ever-changing market and associated production needs. Although it won’t guarantee a job, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some college education were a requirement for most production jobs. As unions seem to wield less power, education will become a much more effective means of creating job security, when compared with historical job-creation programs. What effect two tiers of workers might have on a company’s productivity and loyalty is unknown, but it will be very interesting to observe if it comes to pass.

Sensitive Robots

As time goes on, not only will robots be used for heavy manufacturing operations such as welding, they’ll be used increasingly for operations that require a delicate touch, such as drive train (engine and transmission) assembly. In the next decade, you can expect to see robots with better vision that will handle, place and assemble parts with better differentiation and quality detection capabilities. They’ll also be more flexible and adaptable in what they can do, as well as more dexterous, with the ability to better “feel” the parts they are assembling — more like their human production-line counterparts.

Robots will also become better communicators with their robot peers, as well as with humans. Imagine a robot sending an e-mail or an instant message if it detects a problem, or has completed a series of tasks. In addition, with integrated cameras, robots could send images with their text communications.

The biggest hurdle that the expanding use of robots will encounter will be human resistance. After all, robots have the potential to supplant or replace human workers in a growing number of capacities. However, technology marches on and will likely be used in low-value-added operations, freeing human workers to perform the higher-level value-added tasks that require skills and capabilities that only real people can provide.

Lean Manufacturing Principles

All of the issues that we’ve discussed these past two weeks are essentially just creative extensions of lean manufacturing principles that continue to evolve. Lean manufacturing focuses on reducing these seven wastes in a production environment: over-production, waiting time, transportation, processing, inventory, motion and scrap.

Although the physical plant, machinery and human element may all change in future production scenarios, the human element will always prove the most crucial to achievement and success in manufacturing. In the production environment, humans will never become obsolete — and that’s a good thing.