Automation Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Feb. 7, 2013
This editorial closes out my stint as full-time Editor of Automation World. The work has been exhilarating, but has also eaten into vast amounts of my time. Almost every job I’ve had has involved creating something—often the position itself. I’ve been here 10 years and it looks like this is the best time to step back, take a break, and then develop some of my other ideas. Look for my column in the back of the book as I transition to columnist and pundit.

When you look at manufacturing output and its relation to GDP in dollar terms, manufacturing is still significant. However, when you look at total employment, it has been declining for some time. That is not all bad.

I guess that the TV show 60 Minutes aired a program, “March of the Machines”, on automation and jobs. I say “guess” because I don’t watch that show. Haven’t for 20 years. It focused a segment of the show on “Race Against the Machine” (taken from the old John Henry ballad) by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. The message is that automation replaces jobs.

For some reason, and in spite of the facts, the Association for Advancing Automation ( A3,,)calling itself “the global advocate for the automation industry,” issued a statement saying it “is disappointed in the portrayal of automation.” Jeff Burnstein, president of A3, a trade group representing some 650 companies from 32 countries involved in robotics, vision and motion control technologies, said that the association provided several examples of American companies who used automation to become stronger but that the show’s producers chose not to air them. That, by the way, is one reason why I don’t watch the show.

The association argues that robotics and automation actually add jobs to the economy. While the trade association makes a point that some companies have added jobs because of robots, the big picture is that automation in general and robotics in particular have eliminated many jobs. When you look at manufacturing output and its relation to GDP in dollar terms, manufacturing is still significant. However, when you look at total employment, it has been declining for some time.

That is not all bad. Much of the work done by robotics was unsafe, unhealthy and difficult for humans. Getting manufacturing work done without injuring people is a good thing. Productivity is a good thing. As our manufacturing companies become more productive and efficient, they also become globally competitive.

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I support robotics, vision and motion control technologies. They have advanced manufacturing significantly over the past 30 years. But not necessarily as job creators. New jobs will come from new companies building new things that we don’t even imagine right now.

Skills needed
There are new jobs, though. And these jobs require education and skills. The problem is for unskilled labor. We built up a huge jobs engine for unskilled labor through the first 70 years of the last century. The jobs were often backbreaking, but they also paid well. They were also monotonous. Unsafe. Unhealthy. Men often died very soon after retirement because their bodies were worn down.

Late 19th century writers saw the coming of mass industrialization. Up until then, manufacturing was done by craftsmen, one piece at a time. Their soul went into the making of the piece. Every little town had its blacksmith who created fine things out of metal. But philosophers began to see the production line and division of labor breaking down that craftsmanship. They preached that this took the “soul” out of the making of products.

In the ’80s, a book entitled The Second Industrial Divide looked at that problem and predicted a return of craftsmen as we entered an era of “mass customization.” I know many craftsmen in manufacturing these days. Many are called technicians. These people are not as alienated from their product as the earlier generation.

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