Creative Disruption: The Changing Landscape of Technology

Technology and Manufacturing

Since time immemorial, mankind has attempted to develop tools that would allow it to do more and more with less effort - to help in performing tasks that either require great strength or were dangerous. The first success in this area - or the first that we know of - was the wheel, which was invented somewhere between 5,500 to 7,500 years ago. Once that bit of technology got rolling, progress was rapid in finding uses for it - and we were on our way. Here we look at technology in manufacturing and how the latest advances in this area are changing the world.

From Man to Machine

Progress took a relatively long time and, although sailing shops, guns, and other weapons of war were developed through the centuries, technology did not greatly impact the making of things or "manufacturing" until the infamous Industrial Revolution, which began in England around 1750. This "revolution" began either replacing human labor with that of a machine or implementing machinery that would allow for the replacement of skilled workers with unskilled ones.

While there had always been a fascination with large, strong figures doing the work of humans (think Mary Shelley's 1818 classic novel "Frankenstein"), when machines began replacing human workers, workers understandably pushed back, and protests erupted. The best-known may be the smashing of knitting machines by an Anstey, England, weaver named Edward Ludlam, or "Ned Ludd" in 1799. The story spread and whenever frames were sabotaged, people would say "Ned Ludd did it." By 1812, an organized group of frame-breakers became known as "Luddites," a name that is still applied to anyone who opposes technology and the change it brings.

The Luddite movement did not come to the United States, as such, but the mechanization of textile, watch-making, steel production, and, later, the auto industry, led to the formation of labor unions.

Assembly Line Required

The next important technological development was the introduction of the assembly line by Henry Ford in 1908. No longer did a worker have to know how to make an automobile, only how to install a particular part. Although economist Adam Smith had written of the distribution of labor in his famous "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, the concept had not taken hold in a large-scale way until Ford. Ford, a master of marketing, saw that by mass-producing autos, he could hold costs down and, by also providing high wages to his workers, he could empower them to buy his Model Ts, thus increasing market demand for the cars.

Ford’s assembly-line techniques soon caught on through all forms of manufacturing, although firms soon realized that one of the benefits of the process was that many of the workers on the line did not have to be paid as skilled workers. As movement from the farms to industry accelerated, union membership continued to grow.

Newer and more efficient machines began to further reduce the need for human workers. In 1961, robots were introduced to manufacturing. The Unimate, a programmable robotic arm developed by George Devol was installed in a General Motors plant in Trenton, NJ, in 1961. It is considered the beginning of modern industrial robotics. This set in motion the elimination of human jobs in manufacturing. As a result, a major part of management/labor negotiations from then on would revolve around the retention of jobs as mechanization continued.

As if industrial workers didn’t feel squeezed enough by automation during the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, the rise of the global economy, largely driven by the telecommunications revolution, brought with it offshoring. Faced with heavy global competition, American firms began to take the benefits of foreign advanced automation and/or much lower labor costs, forcing whole industries overseas.

The Growth of Nanotechnology

Another technological development of much greater impact is lurking around the corner. You might be surprised to discover that it's nanotechnology, which involved machines the size of molecules.

In December 1959, soon-to-be Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman, gave a talk at the California Institute of Technology in which he postulated that atoms at the molecular level could be manipulated. This concept went largely unnoticed until the 1986 publication of K. Eric Drexler’s book, "Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology." In the book, Drexler projects the ability of a natotech assembler, which would be able to manipulate atoms to create or manufacture desired products.

How might this work? Suppose that a person needs a pair of jeans and decides to buy them from the Levi's website by entering his or her measurements and the color, cut and fabric of the jeans. The jeans could then be produced by the purchaser's own assembler, which could then be used to manufacture a new toaster, coat or end table.

If you think this sounds space-aged - and far fetched - you may be right, but think about how Web pages are shown on your computer screen. The Web browser receives data and the codes (HTML tags) that tell the browser how to display the data. If you think about it this way, the notion of an assembler seems much closer to the realm of possiblity. After all, it's just like the Web browser; it receives the coding that describes exactly what is to be produced and any necessary molecules - and produces it!

Currently, Levi Strauss manufactures outside of the United States, and transports its jeans to the U.S. on a boat. The jeans are then taken by truck to either warehouses for the fulfillment of online orders or to retail sales outlets. If an assembler ever were perfected, it would eliminate nearly every job in that chain!

If this sounds way out-in-the-future - and it probably is - consider that a similar result is currently obtained through a different technology, 3-D copying, through which items such as bicycle frames and circuit boards are manufactured in a similar process to that of duplicating a memo.

Once the 3-D copying concept is digested, it's still a rudimentary technology next to the assembler. At the same time, it is also an interim step. (Check out this video from the New York Times showing how a 3-D scanner works.)

Manufacturing of the Future

So what will happen if technological change removes the need for human workers altogether? Rest assured that a move in this direction would not be overlooked by the working public. That said, as technology changes, society also learns to adapt. From the weel to the assembler, and so it goes.

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Written by John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on Amazon.com.