Can Smart Manufacturing Save U.S. Jobs?

Kids See Factories as Filthy, Polluting and Evil. Who Would Want to Work in One?

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Walt BoyesBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

In September, I attended a conference on "smart manufacturing" run by a who's who in manufacturing and automation, under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, UT-Austin, UCLA and other imposing entities. The organization is trying to develop a framework for smart manufacturing for the United States, because we all believe that the future of American manufacturing lies in connectivity of data and systems. Just as we want to create the smart grid, we want to create smart manufacturing.

However, as several readers have pointed out, making manufacturing more productive is reducing the number of jobs available. And to be sure, the United States has lost over 2 million manufacturing jobs in the current recession. Some of the letter-writers also have blamed automation and more highly connected manufacturing systems for the radical drop in young Americans who are interested in careers in manufacturing.

But take a look at what the kids see: They see "Captain Planet" fighting manufacturers who are uniformly evil and deformed humanoid pigs. They see factories as filthy, polluting and evil as well. Who would want to work in one?

They have seen their parents and grandparents find out that the promise of lifetime employment if you did your best work was a lie. Even our best work isn't good enough if the plant isn't productive enough to compete with cheap labor in the Far East. They've watched and formed their own opinions about the value of a manufacturing job.

They see securities fraudsters mostly get away with it—and pull down huge incomes to boot. They see game designers and iPhone app designers making the big money, too. What they don't see is the Honda plant in Marysville, Ohio, where everybody wears white lab coats, and you can eat off the floor right next to the production line.

We have an enormous technological lead in just about everything that has to do with computers and mobility, even though the hardware is almost all built in the Far East. Our ability to conceptualize new ways of thinking and communicating is second to none. No wonder young people want to be game and app designers instead of production control specialists. They think that's where the glamor and the money are.

We need to demonstrate that there are good jobs in smart manufacturing—not the jobs of yesterday, but ones for maintenance workers equipped with mobility communications solutions and operators, who are technically at the level we associate today with engineers.

There will be many of those jobs, but we are in danger of not being able to fill them. Why? Those jobs not only require technical skill with computers and networking, but also practical experience in process plants—the thing. we aren't providing for students who might be interested in those jobs.

I keep beating up my alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, for not providing any practical manufacturing engineering courses in the Engineering school. And yet, Silicon Valley, less than 30 miles away, could not function without a sophisticated level of automation. Being fair, UCSC is not alone. It's hard to find university-level education in manufacturing at all, let alone Smart Manufacturing.

We are hoping that this smart manufacturing effort will change things. You can read the framework document we're working from at http://spm.oit.ucla.edu/. There will be more as the framework gets more detailed.

Can Smart Manufacturing save jobs in the U.S.? Yes, and raise the average salary of workers in manufacturing at the same time. Why not suggest to young people that they can become "Process Heroes" themselves?

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