For about 20 years that I can remember most candidates for the Presidency of the United States have disrespected manufacturing. Most people who are running for the office of President don’t have manufacturing in their background. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that after years of manufacturing being attacked from a political standpont that we have a huge decline in the manufacturing base of the American economy. Yes, there are certainly other factors at work here, but our political perspective is one among many which need correction.
Since the Second World War, manufacturing employment has dropped steadily from 33% of all employment to about 10% of all employment. What is really interesting about this trend is that the total output of manufactured goods has remained roughly constant. What accounts for this is increasing productivity. And in recent years a lot of that productivity has been from automation.
The same Department of Commerce research shows agricultural employment, typically a very high labor area, dropping from 33% to 2-1/2% from the turn of the century, 1900’s, to the present. And similarly, agricultural output in the US has remained constant. The main force behind the reduction in labor has been the mechanization of agriculture, or as I would like to refer to it, the “mechatronic-ization” of agriculture, if that doesn’t butcher the English language too severely.
Mechatronics is that elastic term that takes into account so many disparate technologies. Putting a hydraulic system on a power take off from the gasoline engine on a tractor in order to power a variety of farm implements is mechatronics at its finest. And the dawn of factory robotics in the 1980’s has lead to production welding robots that cost less than $50,000. So people are being freed from some of the more repetitive tasks required at the factory level, and, I suppose, being replaced by automation.
The dilemma becomes, how do we create new jobs. Many people believe that the “Green Revolution” will create a lot of new employment. Personally, and after much review of industry studies, there are jobs there, but not enough to turn the economy around anytime soon. And frankly, most of the green power generation technologies have failed to meet their economic burdens, so it’s a work in progress.
On the other hand, the same ingenuity that led to robots on the assembly line in Detroit has also provided us with 3D solid printers that produce very high quality parts in small batches at very low cost. Another mechatronic triumph. Three axes of stepping motors using belt drives and rod bearings to move a print head in 3D that dispenses a variety of hot melt plastic materials into solid shapes following a computer program for a 3D part.
This technology drastically reduces the major hurdle of new product development, which is the cost of prototyping. Hmmm. Sounds like an opportunity. And it is.
So maybe the key to increasing employment is new solutions to old problems. Reinventing the means of production in every industry should be a powerful stimulus to innovation, invention and economic growth. Let’s hope so.