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Bruce Hamilton

Lean

Rosie the Robot

We should not fall prey to counting robots

Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2018 - 12:02

Speaking at the 2003 Shingo Conference, Guy Briggs, general manager of North American operations for General Motors lamented, “We spent the 1980s ‘counting robots’ before we realized that it’s people that make the difference in our business.”

He was alluding to the thirty-five billion (yes, billion) dollars that GM had invested in the 1980s over a three-year period to develop “lights-out” robotics technology. As Toyota sought to elevate employees, GM tried to automate them out the picture. Ultimately, GM’s lights-out peopleless “flexible manufacturing systems” were deemed unworkable and were mothballed. All told, GM spent 90 billion dollars in the 1980s to “modernize” its operations, touted by many as Industry 3.0, the third industrial revolution. At the beginning of that revolution, GM was the lowest cost U.S. auto supplier. By the end, it was the highest. The greatest shame in this saga was not so much the money squandered on equipment, but time lost by adopting the wrong philosophy: one that idolized technology while disrespecting people.

The recent increase in Industry 4.0 buzz has me reflecting on that now ancient history of GM’s ill-advised strategy and thirty-year slide that culminated ten years ago with a $50 billion government bailout and the firing of its CEO. To be sure, the multi-techno advances since the 1980s are startling. There are bright promises of robots that learn, linked multi-sensory process coordination, and instant informative feedback; and of analytics, complex simulation, and additive product development and manufacture. Today’s internet of things (IoT) dwarfs the early attempts at General Motors to automate its factories, and the science just keeps accelerating. So this should be cause for optimism.

Unfortunately, history gives reason for skepticism as well. First, CEO math has not changed since 1980: Rosie the Riveter is still an expense, but Rosie the Robot is an investment! Industry 4.0 proponents are quick to point out that smart robots will work alongside humans, not in place of them. As Guy Briggs noted in 2003, we should not fall prey to counting robots. But, notwithstanding Briggs’ remark, I wonder how far most organizations have progressed with an enlightened social science to support the rapidly evolving IoT and complementary production technologies. As the glitzy new Industry 4.0 technologies become more accessible, will they be viewed as an enabler for human capabilities and development, or will we make the same mistakes we made with Industry 3.0. What do you think?

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About The Author

Bruce Hamilton’s picture

Bruce Hamilton

Bruce Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Manufacturing Partnership (GBMP), brings hands-on experience as a manager, teacher, and change agent. Prior to GBMP, Hamilton led efforts to transform United Electric Controls Co.’s production from a traditional batch factory to a single-piece-flow environment that has become an international showcase. Hamilton has spoken internationally on lean manufacturing, employee involvement, continuous improvement, and implementing change. Also, he has contributed to numerous texts ranging from visual control to variety reduction. Hamilton’s blog, Old Lean Dude, is an ongoing reflection on lean philosophy and practices, with an emphasis on keeping good jobs close to home.