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Automation versus employment.

Decades before the concept of factory automation became a reality, Charlie Chaplin's famous silent movie, "Modern Times," depicted the dehumanizing effects of workers being replaced by machines. This negative image was perpetuated when--years later--industry began linking metalworking processes and sequencing them with electromechanical controls.

With the advent of what we now know as dedicated or hard automation, the sociological aspects of factory work were being hotly debated. Unions fought against the potential loss of jobs; management said it had to reduce costs, but with the resulting improved competitive position, automation would create jobs, not eliminate them.

In retrospect, these arguments didn't matter much because, for one thing, dedicated automation is not an economical way to make small- or medium-size batches of parts that constitute the majority of production output.

Since the 1960s we have been the steady growth of computerized factory automation. We have also heard the same arguments from both labor and management about the effects on employment and the need to be competitive as we heard decades earlier. Now, however, we are dealing with programmable automation, that provides infinitely more possibilities for application than hard automation ever did. We also have had dramatically changing economic conditions superimposed over this rapidly changing technology. The fact that interest in automation has grown during two recent and closely spaced recessions tends to confuse the perceived relationship between automation and employment.

A government study came to our attention recently that, in our estimation, does a very thorough job of examining this complicated issue. Entitled "Computerized Manufacturing Automation: Employment, Education, and the Workplace," the 472-page study defines the present state of the art of programmable automation and focuses on the potential for employment change, effects on the work environment, and implications for education and training. The study was carried out by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), which works directly for the US Congress.

The study emphasizes that technological, social, and economic concerns surrounding the spread of automation are interconnected. Labor-saving technology does not necessarily cause unemployment: employment depends on what and how much consumers will buy, as well as how management decides to make those goods. Technology does not of itself raise or lower skill levels required of workers: skill requirements depend on how management defines jobs and allocates work to suit an existing or preferred work force. Machines do not necessarily improve or degrade the work environment: equipment designers and managers make choices that determine how machines and people interact.

The study also points out that the popular focus on the labor-savings aspects of programmable automation plays on the historic tensions between labor and management, and ignores the role of managerial ability, product design, and other cost factors in determining a company's ability to compete. Whatever technology is used in production is a secondary influence that is dwarfed by the effects of market demand changes.

The report is well researched and documented, containing not only an assessment of programmable automation industries and their technological capabilities, but uses case studies to illustrate present application problems and their solutions. It also clearly spells out education, training, and retraining issues facing US industries, makes comparisons with various international policies, and concludes by enumerating federal policy strategies and specific options.

For information on how to obtain a copy of this report, circle E28.
COPYRIGHT 1984 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Green, Dick
Publication:Tooling & Production
Article Type:editorial
Date:Jul 1, 1984
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