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The Future of Factory Workers

Academics and policy experts have long called for an “advanced manufacturing” revolution in the US.

Manufacturing jobs aren’t coming back. That’s been the constant refrain of CEOs, economists and journalists reacting to the loss of old-fashioned assembly line jobs in the United States. (About 6 million such jobs have disappeared since 2000.)

The assertion typically surfaces as a rebuke to the idea that federal or state governments can stop manufacturers from using overseas labor, or force them to reopen old plants in the US or build new ones that provide just as many jobs. Thanks to the twin forces of globalization and automation — or so this form of economic realism goes — it will always be cheaper to make things using robots or low-wage workers in other countries, and that’s that.

But what if this view is incomplete? What if it doesn’t account for a cultural and technological revolution sweeping the United States — one that promises to redefine manufacturing, make it drastically more accessible, and create a ladder to new kinds of jobs for unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers alike? That’s the possibility this episode of Soonish explores.

Academics and policy experts have long called for an “advanced manufacturing” revolution in the US that would improve industrial performance by applying new technologies, especially software and robots, to outmoded processes. But jobs aren’t usually part of that discussion. In fact, the default strategy for improving factory productivity — which is usually measured in terms of output per worker — is simply to lower the denominator in the equation by using machines to replace even more workers.

But after reading a lot about this area and talking to experts, I’ve begun to believe that there’s an alternative future where factories, instead of getting bigger and more automated, get smaller and more worker-centric.

Several things are happening at once to make that future more likely:

1) The tools for designing and prototyping new products, from advanced CAD software to 3D printers, are now within the reach of non-experts.

2) More people have access to the design and production tools mentioned above and are learning how to use them, thanks to the rebirth of the old-fashioned workshop in the form of the modern “maker space.”

3) Manufacturers are figuring out to take designs from makers and create smaller batches of products economically, allowing greater customization and faster turnaround.

4) And in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis and Occupy Wall Street, scholars and policy analysts are paying more attention to the causes of economic inequality, and studying how ideas from advanced manufacturing can be used to create and preserve jobs rather than destroying them.

All of that, put together, means the factories of the future might be in our basements and garages. In the era of “mass customization,” even a large factory might only have dozens of employees, not thousands — but if their customized and/or artisanal products can command premium prices, there might be enough of these specialized factories to make up the difference. And that might provide an economic ladder for skilled laborers who, 20 or 30 years ago, would have had assembly line jobs.

Those are all pretty abstract propositions, but in this episode I tried to make them very concrete. I visited TechShop, a maker space where craftspeople are using high-tech tools to come up with new products (see my full interview with TechShop CEO Dan Woods). I talked with a business strategist at the Xerox-owned Palo Alto Research Center, where programmers are inventing design software that can help those craftspeople get their ideas to market faster. I toured a startup in an old Massachusetts mill town where one young entrepreneur is creating a path to skilled high-tech employment for manual garment workers. And I met Bill Taylor, an 88-year-old mechanical genius in Belmont, MA, who has an elaborate workshop in his basement and decades of perspective on the changing manufacturing scene in the US.

*[This podcast was originally featured by Soonish.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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