It’s referred to as Manufacturing 4.0, the latest in a long line of wrinkles in our ever-changing world of heavy and light industry, a seismic marriage of technology, automation and computerization that is causing more and more manufacturing functions once done by human hands to be performed by sophisticated machines.
I will write more about Manufacturing 4.0 in the weeks ahead, especially from a human perspective. But today I’d like to offer one quick take on the concept as a whole. And to do that, let me first take you back a few decades.
Economic advisors to the first President Bush, witnessing a phenomenon that was already well underway in the world marketplace – namely the globalization of trade and manufacturing – urged the president to prepare for a virtual sea change in the very idea of macroeconomics. Among the first things the U.S. should do, they told him, was to consider a strategic alliance/open trade policy with Canada and Mexico.
Just a few years later, President Clinton would sign into law what by then was known as NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Act. The U.S. labor unions and the Canadian Liberal party were apoplectic, claiming the NAFTA agreement would cost them and their countries thousands of jobs – which, at least in the short term, it did.
But what those men and women failed to realize was that NAFTA was not making anything possible that wasn’t already rampant in the global arena. It only put something of a governmental seal of approval on it. Almost as though the three countries involved were trying to validate a force far more powerful and irrepressible than anything that together they could have ever conceived or created.
The market was going to become a global force and an international phenomenon, in other words, regardless of whether or not NAFTA was ratified. And what was important for the leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico to do was to make sure they were as strategically prepared for that phenomenon as possible. Which leads me to Manufacturing 4.0.
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat. Technology development is happening. It’s a reality, whether we choose to accept it or not. And like any breakthrough in science or any quantum leap in a free and open market, it is a force unto itself and one that simply will not be denied.
So we can debate Manufacturing 4.0 all we want. But the longer we debate it, and the longer we wring our hands over its impact on our lives or what it will mean to our jobs, the less time we’ll actually have to prepare for it.
What’s more, we should never lose sight of the fact that NAFTA – as well intentioned and important as it was – was in the end, just a label for something bigger and far more compelling than it. So too, we must understand that Manufacturing 4.0 is little more than a catchy little academic-sounding buzzword for something greater and far more pervasive than any one sector of the economy.
Technology is changing everything we Americans do these days, from the way we bank and the way we vote, to the way we communicate, the way we relate to one another, and – yes – even the way we build things. And inasmuch, we can choose to do one thing or we can choose to do the other, because believe me there is very little ground in between.
We can choose to learn how to integrate technology into our lives and our places of work, or we can bury our head in the sand, hope it all goes away, and come to grips with the harsh likelihood that we may be consigning ourselves to spending the rest of our days socially, culturally and (especially) economically marginalized.
My friends, I cannot say for certain what the future holds. No one can. But I know this: whether it’s Manufacturing 4.0 or Life 10.0, now is the time for those of us far down our chosen career path to open our minds to the transformative power and limitless possibilities of technology, and for us to understand that even if it means going back to school, teaching ourselves in our off-hours, and/or seeking out special training, we must become as conversant with it as humanly possible.
Technology and Manufacturing 4.0 are not Orwellian, futuristic concepts. They are real. They are happening. And they are now. They have become, in other words, as much a part of our daily personal and professional lives as air and water.
And for all that technology promises to someday take away from us in this brave new world now being tagged as Manufacturing 4.0 – relatively valueless things like low-skilled jobs and repetitive tasks – it will kick open that many more doors of opportunity and that many more windows to the future.
But stand warned; those doors of opportunity will not be open for everyone. And they will not stay open forever. And only workers – and I mean everyone from the corner office to the shop floor – who possess defined, dynamic and in-demand job skills will be able to continue to pass through them freely.