Autonomation, for those unfamiliar with the term, is ‘automation with a human touch'. A very good definition can be found at businessdictionary.com:
“Technological innovation that enables machines to work harmoniously with their operators by giving them the 'human touch.' Called jidoka in Japanese, it employs automatic and semi-automatic processes to reduce physical and mental load on the workers. Introduced by Sakichi Toyoda (1867-1930) founder of Toyota Industries Corp. around 1924 when he invented an automatic loom that stopped working if even a single thread breaks, thus allowing one operator to control several looms.”
The essence is that automation should facilitate and empower workers – not replace them. In fact, lean companies know that most efforts to replace workers entirely with automation fail miserably. Hope springs eternal, however, and the myth of factories filled with robots – complete lights out production – prevails It hasn’t happened, isn’t happening, ain’t never gonna happen. Try telling that to an economist, however …. or an academic … or Barack Obama.
It is hard to imagine much of anyone outside the Washington D.C. beltway, or not spending hours contemplating the lint in their navels in some recesses of a college campus, who is surprised at the news that the “Obama manufacturing hubs face uphill struggle to create jobs”. Of course they aren’t creating jobs. How on earth can pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into an old building in Youngstown with a couple of geeks inside it messing around with 3D printing create jobs – other than the jobs they gave the handful of geeks and the legions of bureaucrats Washington undoubtedly hired to handle all the paperwork required to keep tabs on the geeks?
The real hoot is that there are actually fewer manufacturing jobs in Youngstown than there were when the project started.
Manufacturing needs people because people have brains. Only mindless academics think manufacturing in the 21st century is remotely similar to the 1920’s-style sweatshop assembly lines. People create value by solving problems, making incremental improvements and conjuring up an endless stream of ideas, suggestions and complaints – all things well beyond the scope of any robot or 3D printer. Machines are fantastic tools in the hands of thinking, engaged people; and rather useless hunks of wire and scrap metal on their own.
Pouring money into an goofball theory of manufacturing without people is silly … and to do so with the objective of job creation borders on the insane.
Just think of the possibilities if the billion bucks Obama wanted to sink into the automation rathole had been invested in jidoka – autonomation - instead. It could have, you know. The billion dollars could fund the MEP program for eight years; and the MEP’s are supposed to be teaching lean, which means teaching jidoka. Sure, most MEP’s couldn’t spell jidoka if you spotted them the j, the i, the d, the o and the k; but some can and all of them can learn.
Now here is some curious logic:
- “Wrestling with how to spur faster economic growth in the summer of 2011, Obama asked White House aide Sperling for a list of policy ideas. Sperling looked abroad for models of success.”
- “Sperling drew inspiration from Germany's Fraunhofer Institutes, which bring together universities, companies and government to turn scientific knowledge into practical applications. Obama liked this idea.”
- “In Germany, a rich nation that specialized in making high-precision goods, about 20 percent of workers still clocked in at factories.”
Let’s look at that. Obama told Sperling to come up with an idea to create jobs. Sperling said let’s model it after Germany where 20% of the folks work in manufacturing. So Sperling took a hard look at Germany and came up with funding anti-German-style ideas to manufacture without people … because he was supposed to create jobs.
I suppose all of this does nothing but prove the obvious: As P.J. O’Rourke once wrote, “Giving money and power to Washington is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.” I hope no one in the manufacturing community really held high hopes that ‘America Makes’ was going to create manufacturing jobs. In fact, ‘America Makes’ is about what can be expected when a community activist (Obama) assigns an economist/lawyer (Sperling) to the task of helping factories, when neither of them have ever actually made anything other than noise their entire careers.