If you’re interested in manufacturing technology or the role of manufacturing in the economy, you may be interested in an article recently published in the Wall Street Journal, “Advanced Manufacturing: The New Industrial Revolution.” But what I found nearly as interesting as the article was (as is often the case) the different comments readers made about it.
The article itself is about how technology is changing the nature of the manufacturing process. Inexpensive electronic components make it possible for machines to monitor themselves, and humans located at remote locations can respond to problems that do arise. Additive manufacturing makes it possible to produce parts in shapes that were not feasible before, or that previously cost too much to be practical.
Because these changes greatly reduce the cost of labor, they may eliminate the desirability of outsourcing production to a faraway continent. And being able to produce one-of-a-kind items without exorbitant tooling costs makes small businesses more able to compete with large companies.
But change is always difficult in one way or another. While new jobs are created, others are lost. Digital technology makes possible new ways to steal intellectual property, or to sabotage operations through computer connections.
The article acknowledges these challenges, but presents an overall positive view of these changes. The comments on the article, on the other hand, are much more mixed. While some readers express enthusiasm, others worry about job prospects for people other than the technicians who build and service these new machines. Others express concerns that the government will manage to make a mess of things so that the hoped-for benefits never materialize.
A couple of comments point out that people who profit from making weapons will also benefit from these new technologies. Others look at the energy consumption involved. (Since just about all manufacturing requires electricity, I don’t know that these technologies will use more. Maybe they’ll use less.)
One person wonders, “Do we end up like the society depicted in the movie WALL-E, where robots and other automated equipment do everything for people, and people basically turn into ‘slugs’?” Like much science fiction, WALL-E used exaggeration to make a point, but it’s just taking current trends to their logical conclusion. If I lived a hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have to pay for a membership at the Y and make time in my schedule to go work out, because I’d be working hard just getting my daily chores done.
And then there are those who point out that a lot of this is not really news at all. As computer technology gets faster and cheaper, the reach of these technologies is expanding, but the concepts and processes have been around for a while. As one reader commented, “I could have written most of this article 10 years ago!”