I just spent some time in China in May and June, and visited a number of different groups and companies who are working in the manufacturing automation space…most, but not all, in process. There is ferment, energy and directedness about the Chinese manufacturing sector. You see it immediately when you notice, as I did at the "Rockwell Automation on the Move" event in Beijing, that the average age of the the close to 1000 attendees was late 20s or early 30s. Contrast this with the average age of automation professionals in North America and Western Europe, which is close to 50.
Two of the most important reasons for this ferment, energy and directedness are these…the Chinese people see manufacturing as an honorable career path, which we no longer do; and the Chinese government sees improving manufacturing as a critical factor in its stated intent to regain its position as the world's largest economy.
Yes, regain. From about 250 BCE to 1050 CE, China did have the world's largest economy, and since 1949, much of its manufacturing policy has been aimed at regaining that title. They expect to do it sometime between now and 2050. I would expect them to achieve that title with no great difficulty.
The cover story in this month's issue is about the use of wireless field networks and other industrial wireless systems to enable the plant of the future. It is true that the advent of wireless systems has already made huge inroads into how we control our process plants. But systems are independent of technology. For example, you can do Kanban with 3 x 5 cards or with a computer, and you can get the same results. I know this is true from my own experience.. The story isn't really about the gee-whiz technology; it is about what the people running plants can do with that technology. But people have to have a significantly different set of attitudes and training to make the best use of the latest technology. They have to believe that making the processes better with the new technology is a worthwhile effort. In the West, there are many fewer believers than in China.
Along with the changes in technology we see coming in the next decade, we will have to improve the systems to take advantage of those changes. In this case, the systems are people. If we have fewer people entering manufacturing (as has been the case every year for the past thirty years) and the popular belief about manufacturing continues to be that it is nasty, dirty, and only fit for people who aren't smart enough to do other things—like investment or mortgage banking—the systems will not be able to take full advantage of the new technologies.
Colleges and universities here have by and large abandoned manufacturing as a field of study. In Xi'an China, I visited not one, but two universities with departments of automation. These universities believe that automation and its ability to enable partnerships between academia and manufacturing is a critical knowledge base for the growth and development of Chinese manufacturing. Xi'an, while it is one of the oldest cities in China, is not the largest, nor is it the most devoted to manufacturing. Other parts of China have similar resources that we in North America and Western Europe simply do not have any more because we have neglected our manufacturing and decided it was no longer worth the effort.
Manufacturing is critical. We cannot exist as a service economy. If we want to have a robust economy, we need to look closely at the culture of manufacturing and how the general culture of the West sees it. And we will have to, somehow, force the view back to what it was a couple of generations ago, when we, too, believed that manufacturing was an honorable profession.