I’m exploring factory automation and what it means for meaningful work. There are a whole bunch of issues that I’m wrestling with right now so I thought I’d share some early, incomplete, thinking.
I tweeted a story about a Chinese factory which replaced a 90% of its workers with robots and saw output rise and defects drop. It struck a nerve with more than 1,000 retweets
. This is part of a long-term trend of automating work that dates back to flint heads and the plough.
Robots dramatically improve industrial productivity and quality control. They are expected to widen Japan’s current trade advantage over the United States. They are also expected to compensate for a severe labor shortage in Japan and to rescue the small-business man, a significant economic and political figure in Japanese life.
Lights-out manufacturing (lights out because automated production lines don’t require people) are pretty common, even in the heartland of middle America. Two such firms, glad of their lights out capabilities include Staub
. (Not to single out those firms, I just found them by searching the web.)
The New York Times published on Siemens Energy plans to build a factory in North Carolina with this punchy realisation:
People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.
So the importance of the right kind of education is necessarily paramount. And this is against the backdrop of what seems to be a continuing enfeeblement of education. For example, that state of Tennessee admitted that a third of its high-school graduates didn’t meet the right standard
(which wouldn’t get you a job in a modern factory, anyway.)
It is also worth noting that industrialisation during the 18th and 19th centuries led to a massive increase in hours worked. The typical hunter-gatherer worked a handful of hours per day during their short lives. That spiked up towards 10-12 hours at day at the peak of industrial age Britain.(Data for that here
and also here
👉🏼 Through the gains of modern economy (automation, trade, workers rights) we’ve reduced that workload towards 7-8 hours per day. The average working Brit puts in about 37 hours a week. According to Jeff Sachs, America’s $55k per capita GDP
is produced by adults working only a few hours a day:
Basically our society is so sophisticated that we can support an unimaginably high level of living with 3 hours and 10 mins.
Where are we seeing job growth? One argument is that coding is the place to go - that it will be the new blue-collar job
My inclination is also to think of coders today as the US auto factory worker on the 1950s. Swelling into a highly-automatable sector because the technology hasn’t caught up, getting better than average salaries because of skills shortages. And just not many auto workers were Henry Ford, very few coders will be Bill Gates. Equally, block-and-tackle coders may soon be caught flat-foot by the automation of the software creation process. (This is why I have argued for promoting more flexible thinking skills than coding alone