A World in Turmoil

March 2, 2011
The world is a quite an unsettled place as I write this. Decades of bottled-up frustration have exploded in the Middle East. The area once led the world in science and commerce. But despite all the wealth derived from oil, the lives of most people in the region showed little advancement and opportunities for growth and prosperity seemed out of reach.

I hope that these revolutions that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and seem likely to do the same in Libya, while forcing governmental policy changes in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other states, is more akin to the American Revolution than the French. I say that not because I’m an American, but because our revolution was about removing a remote authoritarian ruler who siphoned off some of the money, and did not become a vengeful, mob-ruled chaos leading to another authoritarian leader.

People in North America in the mid-1770s wanted more say in political decisions, and opportunity to create better lives for themselves. I’ve seen a similar sentiment in areas of the Middle East. Politics is complex, and I can’t begin to analyze everything. But I know that one problem is with educated people without good prospects for middle-class jobs. Some of the stories coming from Egypt reflected on that theme.

All about opportunity

When I was in that country a couple of years ago, I met a man and started a conversation. He asked what work I did. I gave him a business card and told him I wrote about manufacturing and automation, and how to make these industries and the world a better place because of it. He told me his son had recently graduated with a chemical engineering degree, but he couldn’t find work. I told him to send me a note and I’d suggest some possibilities. I didn’t know how bad it was at that point.

This discussion is ironic because here in the United States, we’re worried about how to find and train more good engineers. With an unemployment rate still hovering above 9 percent, good manufacturing jobs requiring skills and education go begging. We received several letters and essays in response to an article based on interviews I did with chief technology officers of major automation corporations. There will be much more discussion of education, training and evangelizing, trying to entice more of our young people to take up science, engineering and technology careers.

If there is one place where science and politics intersect where it shouldn’t, it’s in the area we now call sustainable manufacturing. The roots of today’s sustainable manufacturing came from early efforts at energy saving—mostly to reduce or eliminate the necessity of building more power plants. I believe that the Lean movement and its focus on reducing waste was also influential. The political part comes from the third root—“green.”

Green became a political movement and actually a political party in some countries. Green party members have been elected to several national legislatures. In the United States, conservatives conjure up one special bogeyman—Al Gore. But, as I quoted one manager in my sustainability article this month (see p. 34), the discussion is about business, not politics.

I’m from rural Ohio, and was taught to not “live like the hogs,” that is, don’t live in filth. That is part of the sustainable manufacturing movement—to reduce or eliminate material sent to landfills. But the other part of my early life education was to not waste. This I carried over to my manufacturing experience. Lean was a natural, common-sense thing for me. Where you reduce waste, you improve things—profits, efficiency and life.

Automation is an integral part of sustainable manufacturing. Things must be measured, analyzed and controlled. Automation often gets accused of putting people out of work. Several people we interviewed for this month’s issue maintained that, based upon their experience, automation actually both saves jobs and offers opportunity for more jobs with better pay and greater engagement.

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