Tuesday, April 07, 2015

The Future of Manufacturing Might Not Be a Panacea for People

          By Brian Orlotti

The April 4th, 2015 Waterloo Region Record article, "Outer space, mobile robots and programmable surfaces: the future of manufacturing," puts forth the thesis that high technology firms focused around 3D printing, advanced sensor creation, mobile robotics development, aerospace and nanotech are replacing traditional manufacturers and are the future of North American industry.

As outlined in the September 11th, 2011 Bloomberg article, "Can Retraining Give the Unemployed a Second Chance?" it's often easier for new, high technology companies to hire recent graduates than to retrain those already in the workforce. Graphic c/o CNN.

The article portrays such high tech jobs as a panacea for terminated workers but neglects to examine the barriers to entry when it comes to retraining displaced workers from traditional industries.

The article examines six Waterloo high-technology firms, including:
  • exactEarth LLP – A COM DEV subsidiary that utilizes micro-satellites to monitor global ship traffic.
  • Lani Labs – An online marketplace for purchasing 3D models for 3D printing at home or  uploading one's own designs to a  3rd party for printing .
  • Maieutic Enterprises - A nano-tech firm developing real-time shape-shifting surfaces made of nano-scale "pins" that could take replace traditional molds.

As outlined in the Record article, the Waterloo region began evolving into a high-technology centre in the early 1980's in response to the closing of local rubber and consumer products factories. One of the first, COM DEV, relocated to nearby Cambridge, ON from Montreal, QC in 1979. COM DEV's move was driven by Cambridge's proximity to multiple universities, i.e. access to technical talent.

The article noted that Com Dev now has 1,100 employees, with the majority possessing engineering or other advanced technical degrees.

Also discussed was Héroux-Devtek's February 2015 opening of a state-of-the-art landing gear components facility for the Boeing 777 in Cambridge. The Waterloo Region Record article pointed out that this facility opened on the same day that a Schneider's meat processing plant in Kitchener (one of the region's largest employers) closed, with a loss of 1500 jobs. The juxtaposition of these two events in the article attempts to frame the Schneider's job losses as being "balanced" by the opening of the Héroux-Devtek plant.

But it's not clear from the article, how many of the displaced workers (if any) from the closed rubber plants and Schneiders Meats found alternate employment at COM DEV and Héroux-Devtek. Given the disparate requirements of the two facilities, its quite likely that there weren't all that many.

3D printing, nanotechnology and other advanced technologies do offer the promise of preserving some Canadian manufacturing in the face of low-cost labour from China and Mexico, but are not a panacea for discarded workers. Many of these workers lack the higher technical education that these new fields require. Also, many of these displaced workers are also in a higher age bracket (typically 40's to 50's) and face difficulties in finding other work due to age discrimination on the part of employers. Worker retraining programs and initiatives to combat ageism are essential if displaced workers are to find alternate employment.

The issue of job losses in the manufacturing sector hit a personal note with the author. The author's father, a ceramics finisher for a large US-based maker of bathroom fixtures, lost his job when his Toronto factory closed down in the late 1990's and the work was exported to Mexico. Unable to find other work in manufacturing, the author's father became a baker.

Brian Orlotti.
If the high technology sector is to be the path to economic recovery, its opportunities must be widely accessible.

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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