Is There a Technology Learning Curve?

The Causes of Unemployment, Lack of Manufacturing Jobs, and Robotics and Automation Replacing People

By Jeremy Pollard

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A quick recap of the previous three columns: I wrote about where we are with unemployment, the lack of manufacturing jobs, and robotics and automation replacing people — all putting us in a precarious position.

It started with an Indian publication that lamented that automation isn't used enough, and wanted my opinion why. I answered that most people don't automate until they have to, and when they do, it will explode since learning curves have already been established.

SEE ALSO: A Canadian Perspective on Jobs

Dick Morley wrote about the PLC starting as an appliance, and migrating into business decisions. Automation became about the business, not the technology.

So let me try to tie this together.

My good friend Ken Ball put together a PLC history in which he says that the GM boys wanted to replace relay panels. There were many reasons to do this. At $1,650 per minute for downtime, fixing a relay panel needed to be fast. So the PLC was born as a relay replacer and as a process troubleshooting aid. What happened?

The learning curve, as described by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing the Chasm, happened. In the early to mid-1980s, PLCs still were being used for technology. Networks were not robust, hardware was costly, and specialists, along with normal electricians, supported the technology.

Remember the IBM PC in 1981? Soon after, software happened, creating a burgeoning, brand new development community. Soft logic emerged. Dennis Wiznosky was one of the first with Ladders80. In his book, SoftLogic: Overcoming Funnel Vision, he forces the reader to think about business profitability, not about the technology.

John Kenworthy's book, Bungee Jumping and Cocoons, speaks to the engineering spirit of the technology. But, no one cares. "Pay at the pump" services means many support jobs have disappeared. The business happened because the greed of a modern society rules.

Then, there was our industry's favorite pontificator, Jim Pinto. As Morley states, "He was a terrible speaker. Jim Heaton and I fixed him up!"

But, Jim talked about what people wanted to hear. He described societal change, people migration, technology stagnation, and the idea of bigger, faster, stronger.

And, he talks about companies and businesses, not technology. He advocates exporting low-value jobs. In a previous life, a PLC Expert wasn't a low-value job/career, and it seems that now most can put PLC programming on their resumé. So what. Most aren't designers or developers, they're programmers. There is a difference.

Since the 1990s, with the increase in technology and the impact of smaller, cheaper PLCs that have built-in networking, web servers and the like, who can compete? Did the IEC global standards do us in?

The technology was repackaged and called a PAC. Does it mean the vendors can charge more money?

The development of software and hardware that is inexpensive moves it toward acquisition. The low cost can be hidden and absorbed by higher-priced services because we still need smart people. Just not as many.

Once you include the current technologies into our arena, our arena doesn't really exist anymore. Technology is all bundled. Technology solves problems, and those problems are now business problems. We can do anything technically with fewer people.

My nephew owns a digital delivery, content-development company. I didn't say business, because it isn't. He has content and the ability to deliver it, but he has no one to deliver it to because of the business hole.

Technology has made our lives richer, but because of the McDonalds mentality (I want it now) we have migrated ourselves right out of a job and a career.

We know about the lack of involvement in STEM in North America. Unions have created an environment of confrontation, when they should be creating a learning and support environment for the future of our society.

Management created the unintended consequence of not thinking about much beside their bonuses. Most kids want to get into finance because, at least for now, it is all about the money.

So in these 40 years, we've had industry leaders pontificate about the technology and the application of that technology. Has the PLC and associated technology, which was simply there to help existing businesses, actually destroyed them? Things became easy, profitability became Number 1, and technology can be exported just like low-value jobs. Problem was, the economy went with it. And we are aging.

Now no one cares about the technology. And, by the way, where are my food stamps? 

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