Last week I went to Greenwood, IN, just outside of Indianapolis, to visit the campus of Endress + Hauser. E+H has substantial manufacturing capability there–and is adding two more buildings to give them more room to expand production and hire more people.

I’m going to juxtapose thoughts from my visit with a new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, “Race Against the Machine.” That book has often been paired with Martin Ford’s book, “Lights in the Tunnel.” There Ford paints a dire picture of human jobs replaced by computers and machines. The former book is actually much more positive than Ford’s.

Humans AND Machines

Brynjolfsson and McAfee remark, “economic progress comes from constant innovation in which people race with machines. Human and machine collaborate together in a race to produce more, to capture markets, and to beat other teams of humans and machines.”

They see a solution where others see only an abyss. “The solution is organizational innovation: co-inventing new organizational structures, processes and business models that leverage ever-advancing technology and human skills.”

No doubt that middle-class paying manufacturing jobs for people with little or no skill or education are going away. And, it takes fewer people to produce the same amount of goods today than yesterday. I think there is no better way to validate much of what Brynjolfsson and McAfee say than to look at a manufacturing facility that truly uses Lean Manufacturing principles.

Lean Manufacturing

E+H is one example of many I’ve toured in the past year. It’s manufacturing process includes some machining and welding and a lot of human assembly processes. Unlike factories when my career began–and even into the mid-90s–that were dirty, noisy and disorganized, today’s factories are often well-lit, clean, quiet. You often don’t need hearing protection and sometimes even safety glasses.

I could tell at first glance into the facility that they practiced Lean. 5S was apparent. As was one-piece flow. Kanban was evident. And respect for people. Manufacturing jobs have changed a lot–and for the better.

We than met in a conference room to discuss business. Once again E+H managers revealed deep understanding of modern sales and marketing. The company manufactures and sells such devices as flow, level, temperature and pressure sensors and instruments. It would be easy to sell on product features and watch your product line become commoditized with falling gross margins. Instead, the company meets with customer teams and discusses how it can help its customer succeed–in productivity, quality and profits.

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