I meet some of the most intelligent and interesting people in the world of automation. Passionate about their work. Trying to make manufacturing–and the world–a better place.

Dining alone on a recent evening in Sidney, a man seated nearby started a conversation. It got around to what I do. He said, “You obviously enjoy what you’re doing.” Guess it shows.

Experience and studying results teach me that automation and controls people have contributed mightily to making manufacturing and production safer, cleaner, more efficient, more profitable. But are there undesirable side effects?

Andrew McAfee studies the impact of IT on the economy. He teaches at MIT. Met him once. Brilliant guy. I’ve referenced him (and colleague and co-author of “Race Against the Machine,” Erik Brynjolfsson) several times. Here’s one on Data-Driven Manufacturing, and Myths of Manufacturing, and Jobs in Manufacturing.

McAfee wrote on his blog last week about The Great Decoupling of the US Economy. In this post he discusses how by the mid-1980s wages and employment began to be decoupled from labor productivity and real GDP. In other words, while the latter two were still growing, the former two were not. In fact, by 2011, the median household income was actually less than any time since 1996.

You need to study his entire argument. But he sent a copy of his book to Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman who referenced it in his own blog.

The problem seems to be application of digital technologies that displace unskilled workers. McAfee and Brynjolfsson discuss potential solutions to the problem which include education.

I agree that it’s crucial that we encourage every young person with whom we interact to study. Try to whet their curiosity about science and engineering. But I think that as we become leaders and managers, we need to consider how we deploy labor, too. Labor is seldom the biggest cost factor in production. Lean manufacturing extols the value of people. Are we doing justice to the people in our plants–soliciting ideas, providing meaningful work, helping them grow?

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