It's been 104 years this week since Sept. 27, 1908, the date that the first Model T rolled off the first modern assembly line. It marked one of the great changes in the way humans made things and interacted with the world.
That era is now fading fast.
It's not that the assembly line is obsolete. We are not going to return to a pre-industrial, hippie-dippie artisanal hand-made society, no matter what you've heard at the local farmers market. Not everyone can afford $50 hand-knit socks. We need factories, we need mass production.
But when Henry Ford set up the assembly line, it was lined by people. That is fading fast.
We know that a lot of North American manufacturing jobs have headed to China over the past two decades. But now manufacturing jobs in China are in danger of vanishing.
Foxconn, the Taiwanese tech giant that assembled your new iPhone, is buying a million robots over the next three years. Yes, a one followed by six zeroes. Foxconn has 1.2 million workers, but even their Chinese employees keep demanding things like money, benefits, and sleep. Robots don't go on strike, they don't steal office supplies, and they don't sass the boss.
Robots have been getting better, too. A decade ago, building a self-driving car was considered a near-insurmountable challenge. Now Google has a fleet of them, and several carmakers are promising to have them in showrooms before the end of the decade. A self-driving car is basically a big, mobile robot, and aside from the massive disruption this will cause across the transportation industries, it will no doubt have spin-offs into industries we can't even imagine now.
Every year, another job that used to be done by hand is taken over, as another innovator figures out how to get a mechanical arm to bend, flex, hold, or press more efficiently.
This incremental technological change is why, even if manufacturing comes back to North America, it won't be bringing as many jobs as when it packed its bags and left.
The cost of a flatscreen TV at your local big box store is based on several components. Materials + labour + marketing + shipping + profit = cost. If the cost of labour in South East Asia and the cost of hauling everything across the Pacific rises, then the TV factory
might actually relocate back to Canada. But expect robots to be in charge.
I'm told there was a time when manufacturing, when working in sawmills and factories and mines, was a way of life for a huge swathe of Canadians.
I was born as that era was dying. I don't really remember it. What we've had since I was young is a world divided into the service industry, skilled technicians such as plumbers and electricians, and folks who work in offices.
Is this a bad thing?
Factories were never nice places to work. Often dangerous, more frequently tedious, they were valued because they gave reliable work over decades. If that's gone, why mourn their loss? Maybe we should hope for a speedier death for human manufacturing, freeing people for other, more intellectually demanding and fulfilling work.
What do people still make by hand? Houses and clothing, for the most part.
And that list might get shorter pretty soon. DARPA just gave $1.25 million to a Georgia Tech spinoff that's trying to automate sewing.
The last big thing that DARPA invested in, by the way, was the robotic car, when that was considered a pipe dream.