What Robots Don’t Do Is Make Work

Yesterday’s story about the beleaguered Fiat Chrysler plant in Toledo, Ohio, was yet another reminder that in a climate of vanishing manufacturing jobs, it will take more than government subsidies or state buyouts to cure the factory complex. The plants of America’s pioneering industrial past have long been innovators of sustainable cycles of production and recycling, and automakers have become masters of automation. It would take more than engineering and robots, however, to resuscitate many factories that in the past have survived through leaps and bounds, even in most normal times.

In a uniquely American competition for jobs, it’s the machines that win. In all the talk this year about the new brave new frontier in automation, and the ways in which that new frontier is an existential threat to many occupations, it is easy to forget how important factories have been to the American dream. The churn of large-scale industrial production in the United States has always been part of the national DNA, even when those factories were nothing but a state of affairs for many Americans. Today’s factory has become so ubiquitous that we assume it can produce anything, when in fact it has made possible plenty of things without ever touching what comes out of the “electrical field” of the circuit board.

But those machines that can produce anything and everything—they do it all. The days of the vast work force at a big auto plant are long past. In Toledo, in Detroit, in Pittsburgh and even in Texas, companies are getting rid of thousands of jobs by sending them to China, Mexico, South Carolina, and other sites. The United States of America must “reinvent” itself—instead of more machines.

For the past few years, I have been trying to prove that robots, assembly lines, and automation are the new jobs. For example, I recently received an invitation to the opening of a new factory in a rural Chinese city. The job that greeted me at the plant was for a Chinese mechanic who would in turn instruct his American apprentices. I thought: That’s not a good way to make a living. I spoke to the plant manager who told me this situation is not all that unusual—suppliers in China’s communist system are also shutting down the jobs of their American counterparts. In the United States, if the assembly line is run by robots and robotic arms, American workers are no longer needed to man the machines, and many of them don’t see it that way.

Automation, of course, is easy to say, and hard to do. The questions on automation that really interest me are about jobs, jobs, jobs. What is the employment pattern of a factory that goes from a full-time worker producing the old-fashioned way to an automated assembly line, or in this case, a factory of robots? How are the jobs performed, the people with the robots or their controllers, and the people working with the equipment that does all the labor of production? I hope you will take my task seriously, as if you had a hand in it, because it truly matters. We are not seeing the end of manufacturing in America, but the end of a period of unparalleled prosperity and easy access to jobs.

A new generation of automation is here. Over the past few years, a few universities have started assembling a roster of machines they believe are necessary to save jobs, to boost innovation and to support the growing number of “solve-it machines” that develop solutions to complex problems. These machines hope to arrive on a dime, revolutionize the way manufacturing is done, and help American workers survive the transition. It will take people to assemble those machines and to develop the ideas, and only courageous and talented workers will succeed.

It’s time to rethink how we think about manufacturing jobs. The machines are here, and they have made a great technology easy to use and must be incorporated into the designs of the next generation of technologies. But it’s going to take skilled workers, a willingness to reimagine the workplace, and most importantly, a recognition of what we have—the capacity for manufacturing. It is our duty to use our resources to make us stronger and more productive, to do better and reach higher, to make America the best place in the world to build things.

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