Automation replacing people


Thread Starter

Marc Sinclair

[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
Recently I designed a machine which automated a process in a food
factory. The installation was commissioned on the line with the manual workers standing by.
On completion of the commissioning the manual workers were 'released' (sacked). One gleaming new machine, five less people! I found this a strange situation as those workers had helped me in the early stages of machine development and now they were no longer needed. I was interested in how members of the list rationalised these situations.

marc sinclair
[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
It is a serious pity that our culture militates against the teaching of ethics in b-school and e-school.

I've done the same thing. I sure didn't feel good about it. And the one time I was called in to look at automating a process which was currently run by one human "expert system" per shift when I had to say that it couldn't be done in an automated fashion I felt a sort of perverse glee.

It isn't good enough to say that workers must now be responsible for their own training and therefore they should be ready to be let go at any time. That's an ethical cop out.

And it is often difficult (read "impossible") to say, "I won't do this work because it will surplus 5 people." In the first place, someone else _will_ do the project, and you _do_ have to eat. About the only thing that you gain is the other guy gets the bad karma (assuming you believe in that sort of thing).

It isn't properly a subject that the project engineer, alone, can deal with. What needs to happen is that managements need to be proactive in assisting displaced workers, finding them places in their organization, or helping them to find outplacement.

Otherwise, you get to be, as somebody described a company to me the other day, "the sort of company that made unions and strikes necessary."

Walt Boyes
[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
How do you think that the project/new machine was justified?
By DL (direct labor) take-out!

Actually, we do install new machinery for more reasons than just labor reduction: quality improvement, process control/accuracy, throughput increase, SAFETY, etc.

Dave Ebert
Acting Manager, VLS Equipment Development
Thomson Consumer Electronics
Marion, IN, USA

Ramer-1, Carl

[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
Rationalize it? Nope, that's not part of my charter. Expect it, admit it openly to the people who help me as I design a system, and sympathize with them, yes.

Webster's 9th New College Dictionary says automation is "3: automatically controlled operation of an apparatus, process or system by
mechanical or electronic devices that take the place of human organs of observation, effort and decision"

If anyone working in a process that can be automated doesn't see the risk to their livelihood, they will become technofodder, consumed by the rampant march of "progress". Does that make me and the rest of the folks on this list agents of destruction and despair? No. I wasn't born into this line of work, rather evolved from previous employments, and will continue to do so while I wish to remain employable at my current salary. How much of my job is automated now compared to 5 or 10 years ago? A lot! How many SCADA systems were around 20 years ago, and today? Is control system design "automated" now compared to stacking a
bank of relays on a backboard and stringing a mile of wire?

I suspect many people on this list have dragged themselves up from the shop floor and evolved into what they are now. And if they were to go
look at the position they once held, would find it filled by a PLC or some other device they now specify in their systems.

No need to rationalize what you do for a living. If it were not for people like the ones this list serves, we might still be planting corn with a pointed stick and praying to the weather gods for rain.

Carl Ramer
[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
I've been on this list since 1995, and this is the first time I can
recall a discussion at the gut-level, re: displacement of workers by automation.

Thoughts for the list:

1) yes, the operative word is "rationalize," because in this case, apparently, automation = job loss, not reassignment, retraining or better work environment. Do we try to make ourselves feel better, and say "oh well," or would addressing this issue within the automation community be better for the economy and for the public opinion of automation?

2) in a macro view, you can look at those fired workers as casualties in battle for global competitiveness, etc. That is cold, but would you have your job if you did not keep your skills current, etc.?

3) Do we feel any obligation, personal or corporate, to sell automation only to companies who demonstrate how they will help displaced workers with outplacement, education, etc.?

John Kowal

John Kowal
Account Manager
The Brady Company

Marketing o Advertising o Public relations
email: [email protected] N80 W12878 Fond du Lac Avenue
T: 414 255 0100 Menomonee Falls, WI 53051-4410
F: 414 255 3388
[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
1. Was the job being done by the people dirty, dangerous, repetitive?
2. Could the people be reasonably expected to maintain the required performance for extended periods? (e.g., picking out faulty oranges from a line)?
3. Can the product be sold at a competitive rate and still pay the workers a living wage? (If not, the alternative may be a lot more people "down the road" when the company goes belly up.)

Bruce Durdle
[email protected]

Neil Waddell

[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
Hello Marc Sinclair,

In my experience people are not permanently replaced by automation. Automation helps do a better job at a lower cost. What you have done
is saved the jobs of the everyone else in the plant. If you do not do all you can to process better food at a lower cost, your compition will.
If the competition wins in a big way your plant will be eliminated. Therefore you helped all the other workers in your plant. However, I would hope that management would not be so hard as to sack your five people but wait for attrition to lower the work force and retrain one or two of the five to help you maintain the new equipment and even help you develop more automation. The best thing we can do for our fellow employees is to find more ways to process product better and at a lower cost.

Neil Waddell
Stoughton Trailers
[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
It's a jarring scene Marc depicts, having your machine go online and send five people packing. One gleaming automaton destroys five livelihoods. An odd but very common thing, to feel guilty about an accomplishment.

"Rationalization" is the right word: Using reason and thought to understand an emotion or instinct. And I have two:

When I was seventeen, I got my first real job as a production welder at Alaskan Copper Works in Seattle. One of the things I did was use a balky
pantograph to convert part profiles into NC machine code. Three months later I had an IBM AT converting the profiles automatically and I had fixed the CNC and torch gantry and... I had obsoleted _myself_. And I'm no longer a welder.

The second rationalization for the "morality of automation" is the many occasions when I've attended a machine breakdown and been thrust into the role of doing the automated machine's task by hand- you did it too, Marc, didn't you? Building a machine that deprives a man of his shift of
backbreaking drudgery is nothing I feel ashamed of. Ask any draft horse how he feels about diesel engines.

John Henry died with a hammer in his hand because he only knew how to swing a hammer.

Ken Roach
Rockwell Automation
Seattle, WA
[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
When computer revolution began, many said that computers would be bad for the economy because they would replace workers. While computers have taken the jobs of many workers, they have created many more higher paying jobs.

Did Thomas Edison do a bad thing by virtually eliminating the profession of candlestick making?

RGB Consultants Pvt. Ltd.

[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
Dear Marc Sinclair,

In India, this problem of replacement of manpower by Automation system is hurdle for carrying out big automation job. It is not because of worker
opposition. It is more economic to have workers to do the job that the price of complete automation. However labor have their own problems. So generally in India the automation comes in slowly. Usually the new workers are not recruited and automation is carried out.

But the fact remains that the manpower is replaced by automatic plant. Which is true for use computers in banks.

[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
It's not a pleasant thought, is it.

I remember when I was younger and naiver and working on our first machine and how exciting it was that the machine actually worked and could put out the same production faster and more reliably than a roomful of envelope-stuffing women (and I don't mean to be gender insensitive here). Until someone pointed out that that roomful of women were now out of their jobs.

Rationalizations I used (or was told) then:
1) The company will find them other similar work to do.
2) It's the kind of grunt work people shouldn't be doing if a machine can do it.
3) It's a service to the customer that the product is of better quality.
4) The savings could be passed down to the customer. (I don't think I was THAT naive!)
5) These jobs were typically second incomes and an excuse to get out of the house.
... rationalizations abound if you don't want to think too hard about them.

But this situation is not about to get better. If you think automation generates
this sort of (problem?, dilemma?, paradox?), look at what the INTERNET will cause:

The face of retailing will change. Bradlees department stores closed recently and I read that
JC Penney's is closing some stores. 4,000 people laid off. Some people blame Walmart.

But that will be the tip of the iceberg. Eventually people will buy many products they
normally shop for at stores, over the Internet (it's happening now). Imagine, at your fingertips, product reviews, product evaluations by fellow netizens, followed by automated agents that will track down the lowest price or quickest delivery. Sounds like a deal for the consumer, right?

But then who would then need salespeople? warehouse people? (the warehouses will also be largely automated or maybe there are no warehouses because the internet allows the manufacturer to build to the orders received that day), maintenance people? (not many needed to take care of the machines, because the machine will tell the human what needs to be replaced/fixed/washed/adjusted)

We'll just have more truck drivers to drive the stuff to your home.

What about the services that depend on the patronage of those people? Restaurants. Doctors. Vinyl Siding Salesmen (oh that's right, no salesmen - only installation people).

I am getting a little carried away here by my touched nerve.

Illigitimi Non Carborundum! (sic)

Hakuna Matata!

Think Happy Thoughts!

[email protected]

David Lawton Mars

[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
It isn't nice to think that individuals are "out of work" due to your actions - I have a similar role to the example you gave (also in food industry). I would counter the negatives with the following;

1. Automation itself generates many jobs for (other) people - OEMs, application engs, software eng, hardware eng etc etc.

2. More complex factories open more opportunities for maintenance and support roles (maintenance personnel, service engineers etc).

3. It provides solutions to applications where "manual handling" is an issue and thus prevents people becoming injured from their work.

4. It is inevitable in competitive industry, that businesses want to undercut competitors and offer the customer the most cost-effective solution. If some businesses chose not to employ such technology to improve their competitive
edge, there would be a higher chance of even more people being out of work i.e. business failure.

As it goes, it is the survival of the fittest.....
[Originally posted 2/2/1998]
at our company, at least in the politically incorrect tobacco side,

automation means re-assignment and re-training
for real - the company has a long term agreement with our unions on this subject

but... that aside we engineers should not feel guilty.... automation = productivity, quality, agility = competition = survival because of productivity we have 40 hour workweeks instead of 72, we have decent wages, productivity shared is good...

productivity gains greedily and exploitively reserved for management and/or stockholders is something else

it's the people who decide how the productivity is used that should wrestle with this one Henry Ford had some decent quotes on this subject....

Randy Sweeney
Philip Morris R&D
I have another question for you: can anyone rationalize the economic rape of domestic engineers by the importation of migrant H1B foreign engineers under the fraud of a shortage of domestic USA engineers? There are PLENTY of qualified, experienced US engineers with maybe a few to many gray hairs to suit the greedy like Sun, Microsoft, HP, Intel, .com's, Cisco, etc., etc., etc.

John Coppini

Bain, Steve/WDC

[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
In response to Marc Sinclair's question:

WARNING: This isn't straight techie stuff.

Thanks for thinking about this, Marc. I have two suggestions, one for Americans, the other for everyone:

1 Our society needs to begin planning toward shortening the workweek again. At the moment, we're going for "economic growth": we can produce more cars than we can drive, grow more food than is good for us to eat, build more houses than we can live in, burn more energy than we can replace, weave more cloth than we can wear, etc. For those of us who are thriving, it feels good at the moment, but the folks who've just been laid off are probably feeling pretty unhappy, and I wouldn't be surprised if history decides "manifest destiny" was one of America's worst concepts. Stopping progress won't help - as
Dave Ebert pointed out, automation has lots of benefits besides reduced labor - but there's little point in building 50% production overcapacity. We Americans can now provide for
all our needs, and most of our reasonable material desires, with less than 40 hours labor per week. It'll soon be time to do just that.

2 Suggestion 1 is fine for Americans, who have over-production capacity, but it doesn't help the one third of the world's population who go to bed hungry each night.
Suggestion 2 is for everyone. We need either:
2.1 An international moratorium on immigration/emigration
2.2 To take down all boundaries and allow complete freedom of movement

Both these are pretty radical by current standards, so let me explain: Our problem is that anyone can leave any country, but we only have to admit people who we like into our own
country. As a result, desirable countries admit people who are well-able to create wealth, and undesirable countries have no way to stop desirable countries from enticing away wealth-creating people. So the wealthy countries get wealthier and the poorer countries get poorer. It seems to me that we have to level this playing field either by stopping all migration, so that undesirable countries keep their wealth-creators, or by allowing all migration, so desirable countries get their share of all types of people.

Both those alternatives are far out, and there are certainly many intermediate compromises. For example, we could negotiate around possibilities such as:
. Anyone wanting to move from one country to another must find someone of equivalent ability to move in the other direction.
. Whenever people marry across national boundaries, they go to live in the less-desirable country.

I'm thoroughly apprised of the totalitarian aspects of these alternatives and I don't like them, but I think they may be better for the world in the long term than the status quo.
However if you really don't like the totalitarian alternatives, pick 2.2 - open the gates, take down the walls, and give the border guards and immigration officials productive work to do, so we can get to a 32-hour workweek sooner.

Steve Bain, [email protected]
Speaking from experience: Naturalized Canadian born in South Africa and living in Washington DC.
Opinions are my own, etc.

Shashank Goel

[Originally posted 1/31/1998]
Hello Everybody,

I would like to point out following things:

1. If manual work was inefficient , slow and costly thing to do , how could you have thought about survival of organisation in changing global scenario of competition. The organisation would have sunk, taking all employees along with these five. Who would be blamed for this?, we as control
engineers , who did not provide economical solutions.

2. More important point is that organisation should have prepared these personnel for this eventuality , and trained them for doing something
better and much more value added jobs . In actuality automation should replace positions, not sack people .

Best of luck

Shashank goel
[Originally posted 1/29/1998]
I don't feel too sorry that people are sometimes displaced (read sacked - laid off - etc). It is usually a temporary thing, and it is absolutely necessary
that progress be made, even at the expense of a few jobs here and there (except mine, of course).

Seriously, the fact of the matter is that people will have their lives changed by what we do. I suspect that most of these changes are for the better, but a few are not, or at least are perceived that way. I am sure, however, that if
i didn't do it, and no one else did it either, that the company would eventually die for lack of a quality widget to sell at a competitive price.
[Originally posted 1/30/1998]
Pardon my soap box, but you struck a nerve here...

The implication here is that the direct effect of automation is job loss. I think this is a misconception. It was not the machine that
caused the workers to be fired, but the employer. In this, as in all things in life, a person's actions are driven by their priorities. In this case the employer cared more about short term company profits than about whether his ex-employees would be able to survive without any

Unfortunately, many employers still treat their employees as a commodity to be bought, sold and used as needed, instead of as fellow human beings. I feel an employer, by hiring a person, accepts a certain moral responsibility for that person's welfare. For me, this is not some "nice extra fluff," but the basic overhead for doing business.

This employer was not very bright. Just think how many devoted, happy workers he will have when they all realize that they could be canned on a moment's notice, just like throwing out the trash. I'm sure they will be very concerned about the quality of their work, too.

It's like when you were a kid: "You can have the puppy, but you have to feed him."

So, am I responsible for those workers being fired? Should I not sell that machine to company X because I know they will fire their workers?
Should I recycle because it's good for the environment? Should I not invest in tobacco stocks because it kills people? Like I said, it's a judgement call, isn't it? Sometimes you have to pay for your principles.

Tom Kirby
Richmond Automation Design, Inc.
804-262-6421 FAX
[email protected]
[Originally posted 2/2/1998]
You have just been involved in a very difficult situation. But consider the following alternatives:
1. Someone else would have done the same if the contract went to another company,
2. A competitive food factory could have and may in the future do the same in order stay competitive.
3. the workers in that plant are competing with workers around the world who work for a few dollars a day. Unfortunately, world-wide competition is here to stay and it's very competitive.

For years I sold PLCs and other factory automation products and realized that the application of my products put people out of work. If I didn't sell them, someone else would and I would be out of a job. Not a nice
thought, but realistic.

For a small amount of comfort consider this: you did not put these people out of work. The food company did with their decision to purchaes the
equipment in the first place. They could have reassigned and/or re-trained these people for other jobs - assuming that jobs would be available.

So don't blame yourself. Just think of all the accountants put out of work by Lotus and Excel. Think of the travel agents who have been replaced by direct ticketing on the Web.

Wouldn't it be great if lawyers and politicians could be replaced in a similar fashion!

Joe Gaglio
Rochester Instrument Systems
255 N. Union St.
Rochester, NY 14605
[Originally posted 2/2/1998]
Hi, All:

This is an important and sensitive issue.

This is especially relevant in smaller communities, like mine, in northwest BC. I am involved in a project whose justification is 'reduced manpower leading to lower cost xxxxx production'. Nothing else - savings are expected from more efficient use of energy, less wear and tear of production equipment, less motorized
vehicle repair, and so on.

I casually mentioned the name of this project, and was 'bush whacked' by a tradesman regarding 'job losses'. He ended his verbal tirade with the comment that Henry Ford had offered his men $5 a day so that they could be potential 'buyers'.

I had to tell him that Henry did not have to compete with Toyota and Hundai!

Its a tough issue for sure - but when management looks at cost per tonne to produce product xxx, and they compare across four of their own plants plus those of their competitors, you can bet the
farm that the high cost producer is not going to be around past the first market downturn!

It's not pretty, but it a fact of life in the '90s.