Nov 22, 2016

The Changing World of Manufacturing – Part I – Changing by the Dozen

R Jayaraman

In a highly connected world the world of manufacturing is on a mission to rediscover its relevance and importance. The winds of change keep blowing, never for once relenting in their speed or intensity. Sometimes they may be subtle, for example, when the changeover from 1G to 2G was done, but sometimes violent, for example when the atom bomb was discovered, which changed the potential nature of wars which could be waged in the future.

Prior to the industrial revolution it was the age of the artisans who blew the wind, using a leather windbag, through a pit of burning coal to heat and beat a piece of iron into shape. Along with the potter, the tiller, the milkman, the shepherd and the cowherd they all ran the society along a set of lines where the individual was the prime mover. Dignity of labour, earnings from wages for which one personally worked with one’s own hands in shaping the needs of and catering to the societal needs were the norms.

The steam engine blew the whistle on these pastoral scenes and ushered in a new power – that of organised labour. Man discovered the market, discovered that goods could be made and sold in bulk, could be used by a mass of people who may or may not be known to each other. The developments that took place after this seminal event slowly changed the concept of “dignity of labour.” No more was the workman known for his skills and mastery as an individual – but he became a part of a collective, which together as an organisation, defined the new rules of engagement. Manufacturing came to be the centrepiece of the value adding chain of activities which gave rise to products and services.

The first wave of automation swept the manufacturing when Henry Ford designed and successfully ran the assembly line which ran without interruption, round the clock, and workers were told that they could be, at best, cogs in the wheel. Followed by companies like Toyota which used robots to weld, paint, cut and such other operations in an automobile assembly line. The next was when many of the so-called “low or non-value operations” – cleaning, sweeping, moulding, forging, casting, cutting, drilling, planing, grinding, surfacing etc. were partially or completely taken over by automatons, pushing the worker to corners where, slowly, only darkness was the visible end of the tunnel scenario. More and more persons were made “redundant” or “non-compulsory” and the “dignity of labour” further eroded. No more was doing a job of a carpenter, a sculptor, a chiseller “valued” for their individuality but only for their contributions to the final, finished product.

The wireless world has transformed the world into a connected, seamless, single monolith where a person sitting in a design centre in Asia could see the changes needed to be made in a machine in the West and using the standard protocols make these changes and get acceptance through emails and WhatsApps and Twitters and Facebook posts. People are more available on the iPhones than on one-to-one conversations and discussions. Indeed with the Internet of Things (IoT) on the horizon, there is a visible breathlessness in manufacturing. Not only will many of the current jobs vanish but the new ones will need different skills, different languages, and different means of communications. The usual banter between workmen and their supervisors and the management team members will vanish too, to be replaced by computer print outs (virtual), 3D machine outputs, signals through WhatsApps and robot-to-robot debates and “discussions.” More and more workplaces will become like the LD shops and Rolling Mills of steel plants where it is difficult to meet any operator on the shop floor, only one or two mugs looking intently at the consoles, whenever they get the time between looking at their WhatsApps and Facebooks and internet surfing. Also like many of our cities where people have stopped going to each other’s places but prefer to talk via WhastApps and electronics.

In such a scenario manufacturing will have to make changes. What will be affected will be – teamwork, as more and more individuals become empowered through gadgetry to play God; co-ordination which needs a lot of continuous person-to-person meetings and development of a common language with subtleties and nuances which go far beyond mere words; an esprit de corps which needs people to work with each other and experience ups and downs together thereby bringing about synergy and good practices. Replacing all these will be more gadgets, automation run by computer consoles, gadgets connected by wireless connections, putting people further behind machines. With AI, “neural” networks, big data analytics, man is making it more and more difficult to live with fellow man, eliminating the reasons for interactions progressively.

Manufacturing will soon be less manned, more gadgeted, more connected and driven by AI devices using IoT, analysed and decisioned by Big Data Analytics algorithms and robotised. The only place where manufacturing will still have a connectivity with people is the traditional field of “customers.” One needs to be cautious here, robots may even replace humans as customers too in times to come. Welcome to the brave new world, indeed.

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