American Machining

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

I've been reading an excellent biography of Fredrick Winslow Taylor, who helped develop high speed steel (which is essential to modern manufacturing) as well as a system of shop management that revolutionized manufacturing, and ultimately helped to shape modern life.
One of Taylor's contemporaries, Fred Colvin, was the first editor of American Machinist magazine. AM subscription, is free, though I've yet to receive a printed copy since my request a few weeks ago. The website is nicely done and they have some interesting articles that offer perspective on the state of manufacturing 100 years after Taylor.

From articles in AM's 2005 State of Manufacturing:

Finding and Training Tomorrow's Machinists
The introduction of CNC machine tools has changed the nature of the work of machinists. Now, a machinist has to be computer literate and understand basic electronics and physics. Employees at all levels must have the skills to deal with the technology inherent in complex environments.

Students asked to describe images associated with a career in manufacturing responded with phrases such as "serving a life sentence," being "on a chain gang," or "slave to the line," or even being a "robot." Almost unanimously, they saw manufacturing opportunities to be in stark contrast with the characteristics they desire in their careers. Thus, they do not plan on careers in manufacturing.

"Most young people have in mind a 20, 30, or 40-yr-old manufacturing model," notes Tom Whelan, a principal at Omaha's Silverstone Group specializing in human-resource development. "The dangerous, dirty, labor-intensive assembly lines of the 1950s are gone, replaced by robotics and intelligent systems requiring high-tech skills. In spite of dramatic changes in factory conditions, the old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions persist. Manufacturers have failed to show how they've modernized, embraced new technologies, and involved workers in management and product development."

One reason manufacturing is perceived as a declining field is that employment figures reflect the number of manual-labor and assembly-line jobs being replaced by robots or moved outside the country. Most people don't think about the higher-level jobs remaining.
This is the crux of the issue in American manufacturing labor reform, one I've been reading about in the Taylor biography. Implementing Taylor's system of scientific management to a shop often meant mass firings because job descriptions changed drastically—workers did much more work (usually at considerably greater pay). Taylor actually found that unskilled men could fill jobs once considered highly skilled, once the job was boiled down into its component parts and the new men were given training in their specific task. Experienced machinists tended to resist the changes and rely heavily on inefficient rules of thumb. At the same time, Taylor mandated drastically increasing the number of foremen supervising a given number of men. The result was a re-shuffling of manufacturing jobs.

Outsourcing has moved these relatively unskilled jobs overseas. What remain are more highly skilled positions, making things the Chinese can't make as well or as efficiently. American workers will have to learn new skills to stay competitive in the manufacturing labor market, but it's probably good for everyone in the long run. More products will continue to be available at lower prices. Whether that abundance is ultimately good or bad, it continues a trend that Taylor is responsible for launching in earnest.

In 1912, Taylor's system reached nationwide fame and controversy Scientific management was even the subject of congressional hearings to determine its place in the nation's factories and armories. By the end of the first world war, scientific management and its derivatives were widely accepted worldwide, and nowhere more so than in the US. The war effort required such drastically increased production that Taylorism presented the only viable option. What will it take to make outsourcing as accepted as scientific management is now?
Another misconception is that manufacturing offers only low-paying jobs. According to the Department of Commerce, the average salary-and-benefit package for manufacturing workers was $62,700 in 2003. The national average for all jobs was $51,000.
Surprising numbers, no?


Leveling the International Playing Field

In Arizona I saw one of Haas' fleet of "after-sales support" vans that seem to be key to their success in the American CNC tool business. Each van is a cross between a Snap-On truck and a repair shop, as I understand it, roving from one plant to the next, doing repairs and supplying replacement parts.

The sidebar "Success in China" describes how Haas' success there is likewise dependent on those vans. It's just hard to imagine these Haas vans criss-crossing the Chinese countryside, getting stuck behind a flock of sheep or a washed-out bridge. The Haas van, the picture of American technological progress, juxtaposed* against the difficulties implicit in working in a place like rural China. I'm generalizing here, and I've never been to any part of Asia, but I liked the image.

* Can you tell I've been in art school?

1 comment:

Stevencap said...

Please share your stories about lost manufacturing jobs.

The Alliance for American Manufacturing is a national, non-partisan group dedicated to strengthening U.S. manufacturing. AAM’s blog,, covers issues related to U.S. manufacturing jobs and is compiling firsthand accounts of factory closings and lost jobs.

AAM invites people to share their stories about lost manufacturing jobs, either by emailing Steven Capozzola at, or by posting a comment directly on the blog,