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Change is required to stay on top

Jan. 7, 2019
Don't get too comfortable when you reach the peak

Remember back in the day when Kodak was the king of photography? Remember when digital cameras started to proliferate the landscape and Kodak said it would never last?

My first digital camera had a 3.5-inch floppy for storage, which was good for a bunch of pictures. Enter the iPhone, and now a bunch is a way bigger bunch; and Kodak is nowhere to be found.

They didn’t adjust. This is a technical world we are living in. We all must adjust and morph in order to stay afloat.

The announcement of the closure of the GM plant in Oshawa, Canada, is a crushing blow to the city and to the complete province of Ontario. It won’t be the last closure either.

I don’t mean to minimize the effects of the U.S. plant closures, but I have done work at those plants and taught many a GM apprentice on the benefits of learning PLC-controlled processes. I know what GM means to the city and to the people working there.

Having said that, in the 1980s there were more than 40,000 GM employees and now just under 3,000. You might be wondering why.

Automation, robotics and a whole bunch of smart people.

And now technology is changing, as well as market forces that are forcing the auto industry to adjust. People didn’t want gas-guzzling vehicles in the ’70s and ’80s. Gas was way too expensive. So the industry adjusted and started building smaller, more-fuel-efficient cars and trucks.

What has happened now is that both Ford and GM have realized that SUVs and crossovers are the flavor of the decade—gas prices be damned.

It’s a function of the market. People are not buying as many new cars, especially those that these GM plants are making. So what is to be learned by this?

Let’s use Uber as an example. They are using vehicles that are already bought to ferry passengers around. It is a successful model due to reaction time and cost in comparison to a taxi.

With drunk-driving and now cannabis-impaired-driving laws as harsh as they are, there are services that will drive you and your car home, short-circuiting the taxi business again.

UberEats, pizza delivery and alcohol delivery are using people with their own vehicles, so personal vehicles are being re-purposed at certain times during the day.

A taxi company can’t adjust because of government regulations. Unless Uber and Lyft and the like have the same playing field, taxis are toast.

Taxi fleets will no longer be needed. What can unions learn from Uber and the current market conditions?

Can they be less militant? More cooperative? Probably not since they would see that as rolling over. Corporations are just as bad. The CEO of GM was paid nearly $22 million in 2017, which doesn’t sit well with the rank and file.

But, if the unions don’t adjust, what will become of them? I have stated before that they are a necessary balance between corporate greed and stupidity. Our economy needs well-paying jobs, so that the rank and file has money to spend to keep the economic engine revving.

Are we in a catch-22 situation here? In 1983, 20.1% of U.S. workers were in a labor union; that dropped to 10.7% in 2016. Automation, as well as offshoring, has played a big part in this reduction.

If unions adjust and “roll over,” then the scales of balance are tipped. But if they don’t become more amicable, will corporations continue to be lousy corporate citizens?

What will be the blowback for the OEMs that supply the auto industry; how have they adjusted through the past 20 years?

Technology is great when it works for us, and not so good when it works against us. Many pundits including your scribe have lamented about the lack of skilled minds being developed and the lack of consideration for those minds that are thrown out with the bath water.

The travesty of the GM closures is that the average age in the plant in Oshawa is 47. GM has been a lifelong employer for most of the people there, and now they have to be retrained? Please tell me you can take a 47-year-old anyone and give them a career in AI anything.

It’s not going to happen.

Steve Loftus, CEO of Innovative Automation in Barrie, Canada, suggests that the tier-1 suppliers will be hurt the most. He also questions where the social-responsibility efforts are going to come from. He reminded me that automobile manufacturers do not build cars, they assemble them.

With JIT manufacturing in place, these tier-1 plants are in close proximity to the plants they support. Since many of the manufacturing jobs have left the building, governments will have to rely on the people who are still working to support those who are not.

It is so easy to pull the rug out from under someone’s feet until it is your feet. Consider the possibility and continue to adjust.

ALSO READ: Step up the technology in machine control

About the author: Jeremy Pollard
About the Author

Jeremy Pollard | CET

Jeremy Pollard, CET, has been writing about technology and software issues for many years. Pollard has been involved in control system programming and training for more than 25 years.

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