Putting the brakes on automation

By Michael Hughes

As the headlines blare about how robots will take all our jobs, many wonder whether people will matter in the future.

I reckon the answer is yes. For despite visions of a human-less workforce led by artificial intelligence, reality, as Jeffrey K. Liker explains in this month's cover story, will force work systems to include us analog hominoids.

Liker, an industrial and operations engineering professor at the University of Michigan, takes aim at the Elon Musks of the world and the "visionary" notion that humanity, as part of the workforce, is on its way out.

Take Musk and his Tesla Model 3 electric car. After famously declaring that people didn't belong on the production line, Musk backtracked as delays and problems mounted. Facing issues of quality and (lack of) quantity, Musk backtracked on his grandiose boasts about automation and went looking for help from … more people.

Liker writes that Toyota learned long ago that too much automation too fast can put your enterprise in a pickle. When business drops, the fixed costs of huge machinery become an albatross on the bottom line. What's more, automation can be somewhat of a black box – push the button, out comes the manufactured part. This works efficiently until the box breaks. Then somebody – here come us hominoids – needs to understand the process well enough to fix things.

That can't happen unless you teach your humans process expertise, which comes from examining processes, timing each other, taking seconds out and boosting productivity – in other words, Liker writes, classical industrial and systems engineering, albeit done on the shop floor instead of a back room. While Toyota is not afraid of automation, its vaunted production system is designed to make sure the right automation happens and its workers continually and incrementally improve processes – things that don't get accomplished when you ignore process improvement and the benefits of people.

So take a look at "Don't count humans out" and see what even a visionary like Elon Musk needs to learn.

Michael Hughes is managing editor of IISE. Reach him at mhughes@iise.org or (770) 349-1110.