Can we and are we really replacing the jobs that automation is taking?

Jan. 30, 2017
Save those jobs so they can be automated.

U.S. President Donald Trump saves a multitude of jobs in Indiana and gives away some dough over a period of time. He gloated over this deal, as if he is the savior to manufacturing. And just wait until he gets rolling.

As I said in my previous column, he may bring back productivity to North America—I refrain to single out just the United States—but the jobs will not follow for various reasons, least of which is the mentality of some people. The data may be dated, but regardless this is a conversation point among us.

Back in the 1970s, when I started my career in automation with Allen Bradley, now Rockwell Automation, I was asked repeatedly about how many jobs a PLC would replace. And of course I toed the line and said, “Well, Mr. Engineer, it is being said that the PLC and associated devices will bring in more jobs than they replace, but yes it will replace some.”

Well, those jobs that were replaced were some low-level assembly jobs, sequential assembly jobs, and the like. As the PLC grew into process, some process jobs were replaced due to the integration of analog into the I/O systems.

So, as time went on, the jobs that automation couldn’t replace at the time moved to a lower-cost labor arena. This is what was called offshoring.

And, lo and behold, robotics started to become inexpensive and employ various feedback mechanisms, such as vision and tactile functions. It seems that some of those jobs that couldn’t have been replaced then can be now.

So, just about any machine-control, operational-control or process-control application can be done with minimal input from a human. Remember when I wrote about that hotel in Japan staffed by robots only?

IBM Watson, while big and wieldy, is allegedly able to learn by reading. It seems Watson can provide better and more accurate information to a client for a legal situation than most lawyers can.

So if Uber and Google may set the insurance industry on its ear with self-driving cars, and if Airbnb could take over a big percentage of hotel stays, who is going to take over most of the manufacturing jobs? Automated machines and processes.

You may ask why it won’t change with Mr. Trump at the helm. The answer to that is simple—he doesn’t care. Most people don’t care.

Remote control of robots can perform human operations. Remote access to processes can speed up support and troubleshooting issues. The only thing automation can’t do is physically change out a motor, not yet anyway.

So, when I read about Trump’s Carrier job save in Indiana, it seems there may not be 1,400 jobs saved, but more like as little as 400. Did he include jobs that weren’t going to move anyway, such as the engineering departments? Having that intellectual property in the hands of a foreign country is not desirable. It took us a long time to learn that.

As I learned more about the Carrier situation, I felt this really bad pain in my stomach. Trump is antagonistic, brash and sort of an off-the-cuff kind of guy. We have seen it in his tweets to various people.

So, who is he going to tick off first? Well, my first guess wasn’t unions, but I was wrong. The government-backed investment is mainly to make Carrier more competitive by utilizing new equipment to manufacture its HVAC units. And yes, Virginia, these systems will be automated because otherwise they can’t be made competitive, due to the high cost of doing business in North America.

We have safety, pension, health, benefits and wage issues that far outweigh most of the low-cost labor world. That’s what the TPP was supposed to do—allow access to these low-cost labor pools while still protecting the intellectual property and patents that may be exposed.

So, Trump scorned Chuck Jones, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1999, which represents workers at the Carrier plant. Trump essentially stated that it was the union’s fault for getting Carrier into the position where he had to come in and save them.

Carrier offered a wage cut that amounted to less than minimum wage if the jobs were to stay. We all know the answer to that.

It brought back visions of President Ronald Reagan and the air-traffic-controller incident.

So, who’s right? Neither, in my view. Unions want a good wage for their people, but everyone should be of the same ilk. Just because it can be automated doesn’t mean it should.

Or does it depend on who benefits the most? I am divided on that statement. As I’ve written previously, I have no idea what my grandkids are going to be able to do in the world that is unfolding before us.

About the author
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.
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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