12 December 2018 – I was wondering what to talk about in this week’s blog posting, when an article bearing an interesting-sounding headline crossed my desk. The article, written by Simone Stolzoff of Quartz Media was published last Monday (12/3/2018) by the World Economic Forum (WEF) under the title “Here are the countries most likely to replace you with a robot.”
I generally look askance at organizations with grandiose names that include the word “World,” figuring that they likely are long on megalomania and short on substance. Further, this one lists the inimitable (thank God there’s only one!) Al Gore on its Board of Trustees.
On the other hand, David Rubenstein is also on the WEF board. Rubenstein usually seems to have his head screwed on straight, so that’s a positive sign for the organization. Therefore, I figured the article might be worth reading and should be judged on its own merits.
The main content is summarized in two bar graphs. The first lists the ratio of robots to thousands of manufacturing workers in various countries. The highest scores go to South Korea and Singapore. In fact, three of the top four are Far Eastern countries. The United States comes in around number seven.
The second applies a correction to the graphed data to reorder the list by taking into account the countries’ relative wealth. There, the United States comes in dead last among the sixteen countries listed. East Asian countries account for all of the top five.
The take-home-lesson from the article is conveniently stated in its final paragraph:
“The upshot of all of this is relatively straightforward. When taking wages into account, Asian countries far outpace their western counterparts. If robots are the future of manufacturing, American and European countries have some catching up to do to stay competitive.”
This article, of course, got me started thinking about automation and how manufacturers choose to adopt it. It’s a subject that was a major theme throughout my tenure as Chief Editor of Test & Measurement World and constituted the bulk of my work at Control Engineering.
The graphs certainly support the conclusions expressed in the cited paragraph’s first two sentences. The third sentence, however, is problematical.
That ultimate conclusion is based on accepting that “robots are the future of manufacturing.” Absolute assertions like that are always dangerous. Seldom is anything so all-or-nothing.
Predicting the future is epistemological suicide. Whenever I hear such bald-faced statements I recall Jim Morrison’s prescient statement: “The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”
The line was prescient because a little over a year after the song’s release, Morrison was dead at age twenty seven, thereby fulfilling the slogan expressed by John Derek’s “Nick Romano” character in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film Knock on Any Door: “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.”
Anyway, predictions like “robots are the future of manufacturing” are generally suspect because, in the chaotic Universe in which we live, the future is inherently unpredictable.
If you want to say something practically guaranteed to be wrong, predict the future!
I’d like to offer an alternate explanation for the data presented in the WEF graphs. It’s based on my belief that American Culture usually gets things right in the long run.
Yes, that’s the long run in which economist John Maynard Keynes pointed out that we’re all dead.
My belief in the ultimate vindication of American trends is based, not on national pride or jingoism, but on historical precedents. Countries that have bucked American trends often start out strong, but ultimately fade.
An obvious example is trendy Japanese management techniques based on Druckerian principles that were so much in vogue during the last half of the twentieth century. Folks imagined such techniques were going to drive the Japanese economy to pre-eminence in the world. Management consultants touted such principles as the future for corporate governance without noticing that while they were great for middle management, they were useless for strategic planning.
Japanese manufacturers beat the crap out of U.S. industry for a while, but eventually their economy fell into a prolonged recession characterized by economic stagnation and disinflation so severe that even negative interest rates couldn’t restart it.
Similar examples abound, which is why our little country with its relatively minuscule population (4.3% of the world’s) has by far the biggest GDP in the world. China, with more than four times the population, grosses less than a third of what we do.
So, if robotic adoption is the future of manufacturing, why are we so far behind? Assuming we actually do know what we’re doing, as past performance would suggest, the answer must be that the others are getting it wrong. Their faith in robotics as a driver of manufacturing productivity may be misplaced.
How could that be? What could be wrong with relying on technological advancement as the driver of productivity?
Manufacturing productivity is calculated on the basis of stuff produced (as measured by its total value in dollars) divided by the number of worker-hours needed to produce it. That should tell you something about what it takes to produce stuff. It’s all about human worker involvement.
Folks who think robots automatically increase productivity are fixating on the denominator in the productivity calculation. Making even the same amount of stuff while reducing the worker-hours needed to produce it should drive productivity up fast. That’s basic number theory. Yet, while manufacturing has been rapidly introducing all kinds of automation over the last few decades, productivity has stagnated.
We need to look for a different explanation.
It just might be that robotic adoption is another example of too much of a good thing. It might be that reliance on technology could prove to be less effective than something about the people making up the work force.
I’m suggesting that because I’ve been led to believe that work forces in the Far Eastern developing economies are less skillful, may have lower expectations, and are more tolerant of authoritarian governments.
Why would those traits make a difference? I’ll take them one at a time to suggest how they might.
The impression that Far Eastern populations are less skillful is not easy to demonstrate. Nobody who’s dealt with people of Asian extraction in either an educational or work-force setting would ever imagine they are at all deficient in either intelligence or motivation. On the other hand, as emerging or developing economies those countries are likely more dependent on workers newly recruited from rural, agrarian settings, who are likely less acclimated to manufacturing and industrial environments. On this basis, one may posit that the available workers may prove less skillful in a manufacturing setting.
It’s a weak argument, but it exists.
The idea that people making up Far-Eastern work forces have lower expectations than those in more developed economies is on firmer footing. Workers in Canada, the U.S. and Europe have very high expectations for how they should be treated. Wages are higher. Benefits are more generous. Upward mobility perceptions are ingrained in the cultures.
For developing economies, not so much.
Then, we come to tolerance of authoritarian regimes. Tolerance of authoritarianism goes hand-in-hand with tolerance for the usual authoritarian vices of graft, lack of personal freedom and social immobility. Only those believing populist political propaganda think differently (which is the danger of populism).
What’s all this got to do with manufacturing productivity?
Lack of skill, low expectations and patience under authority are not conducive to high productivity. People are productive when they work hard. People work hard when they are incentivized. They are incentivized to work when they believe that working harder will make their lives better. It’s not hard to grasp!
Installing robots in a plant won’t by itself lead human workers to believe that working harder will make their lives better. If anything, it’ll do the opposite. They’ll start worrying that their lives are about to take a turn for the worse.
Maybe that has something to do with why increased automation has failed to increase productivity.