How Automation Will Affect Your Job (Oct, 1955)

If you’re interested in Automation we have a great Scientific American series from 1952.

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How Automation Will Affect Your Job

New skills, a shorter work week and more leisure time will be yours in 1975—thanks to machines with “brains”!

By Robert Bendiner

THE YEAR is 1975. For a man of 50 leaving a factory gate at five in the afternoon, you look remarkably fresh. Your light, comfortable-looking summer suit is pressed and spotless, your face and hands are free of grime, and your features show no sign of the strain that men once associated with the heat and noise of a big factory. There is an extra spring in your step as you walk toward the heliport, perhaps because this is Thursday. Your four-day work week is over, and ahead of you are three full days to call your own.

Are you a pampered relative of the owner, or perhaps the owner himself? Not at all. You are an ordinary factory hand—in charge of “preventive tool maintenance” for your section. You have been with the Peerless Auto Parts Company for 25 years, one of the lucky ones who were trained by management for the great changeover to automation that occurred in the mid-’60s.

The switch did not come overnight, of course. Your fairly small outfit, like many others, tried to keep pace with the technological advances, especially electronic, that grew out of the war. But it didn’t go all the way until automation had been given a thorough workout by the giant companies that could afford to experiment with equipment that came fabulously high.

It was 1965 before you, and about 40 others out of the old force of 250, moved into the new Peerless plant—shiny, air-conditioned, and built for automated production. The shift was hard, for a time, on quite a few of your friends whose jobs had vanished in the changeover. But as far as you were concerned, it was to be a new life and a much better one.

What made the new system true automation, and not just the addition of a few more self-operating machines? The answer lay in a compact electronic “brain,” linked to all the machines on the line, just as a human brain is linked to the machinery of the body. Once instructed, it would direct each machine in the performance of its duty, synchronizing their movements and coordinating their operations into a smooth, orderly process. And at the heart of the system was a principle known as “feedback.”

It was this mysterious “feedback” that was to make all the difference. A man’s hand, reaching across a table to pick up a book, is guided by his brain. The eye keeps telling the brain whether the hand is approaching the book. The brain corrects the hand if it is overreaching, falling short, or moving too far to the right or left. The whole process is instantaneous, of course, and carried on below the level of consciousness. But it is feedback, all the same, with the brain giving the orders. When a ship is set to steer a certain course, the steering mechanism will automatically swing to starboard if the ship veers too far to port, and vice versa. That, too, is feedback, with an automatic compass giving the orders. In the automated factory, feedback centers in the electronic computer which automatically compares the work being done by the machines with the instructions inserted into its “memory” by punched cards or magnetic tape. And it keeps correcting these mechanical “hands” until the prescribed standards are met.

In your plant, for instance, the “brain” is posted on the precise design, shape and dimensions for a particular part. When the roughly molded metal has been initially treated by one machine, the “brain” will have it transferred by conveyor to the next operation. It will see to it that the part is ground to exactly the right shape and then subjected to whatever other processes the orders call for—drilling, honing, milling, boring, or anything else. And it will automatically inspect the finished part before it comes off the belt.

Your job in this smooth-working plant is to see that the robot doesn’t break down, or even slow down, because a drill here or a reamer there has outlived its usefulness. But you need not make the rounds of the factory, probing and testing for faulty equipment. Instead, you settle down in front of a tool-control panel, on which every cutting instrument in the plant is represented by a dial. Each dial is set for a number of cutting operations corresponding to the expected life of its tool, and when it reaches the point at which a change is due, a light flashes. You then pick up the intercom and call for a tool replacement, by number and location, and at the first opportune moment a setter at the appropriate station makes a quick substitution.

Except for a few sweepers who keep touring the plant with power-operated cleaning equipment, most of your fellow-workmen are engaged in dial-reading, button-pushing operations similar to your own. Even the oilers who used to make the rounds of the machines, oil can in hand, have vanished into the past, for lubrication is now a utility service, like water and electricity. Oil is pumped through pipes from a central source, with a clocked measuring device on each machine to feed the right amount of lubricant to each bearing.

It’s all a far cry from the primitive factory you first worked in, back in the ’40s, with its turmoil, straw bosses, daily accidents and delays. But the contrast in your working day was only the beginning of the changes that automation was to make in your life.

Before automation you came out the factory gate in the evening dog-tired and dirty. You were a servant of the machine then and had to hurry up or slow down depending on the speed of the belt. Your work had a deadly monotony about it. When you finished your day’s stint you were ready for supper, an hour of idleness, perhaps, and then bed—so you would have the energy to go through the same routine the next day. Theoretically you worked a 40-hour week, but with overtime it often came to 44, 48 or even more.

That was much better, no doubt, than the 60-hour week your father used to tell you about, but it was a heavy workload compared with the 30 hours you put in now. And here are the unions talking about knocking it down to 24!

Well, why not? With every increase in productivity, thanks to the machines, and with every drop in the working week, the standard of living has gone up until now, in 1975, the average American is materially three times as well off as his grandfather was 50 years before. Thanks to enormous strides in medicine and much improved working conditions, the nation is healthier than any nation has ever been in history, and life expectancy at birth has advanced to 75 years.

But the coming of the Automation Age was not all beer and skittles. There were rough spots, too, though a degree of intelligent cooperation between industry, labor, and government kept them from being as rough or as extensive as gloomy prophets had predicted.

At first the big employers, the only ones who could afford automation equipment, were very careful about laying people off. As far as possible, they used the new techniques to increase production rather than cut down on personnel. Often, veteran employees would be kept on after their old jobs had disappeared, even if it meant giving them inferior jobs at the same wage.

Actually the American office changed faster than the factory. As far back as the early ’50s, General Electric showed the way when it hired Univac, the famous Remington-Rand electronic brain, to help run its Major Appliances Division at Louisville.

During the war electronic computers had been used to make instant calculations of the flight of an enemy plane and direct anti-aircraft shells to the target. Astronomers had used them to make the most complex computations of stellar and planetary movements. It took no great stretch of the imagination to realize that a machine that could perform these wonders could certainly be converted from the purposes of war and science to the purposes of business. Instead of storing its magnetic “memory” with data on velocities, voltages, and temperatures, one could feed it information on pay schedules, tax data, Social Security deductions, and overtime rates, leaving it then to go ahead and make up the most complex payroll.

At first General Electric used Univac only for such limited purposes. With a high-speed writer attached, it not only made up the payroll but wrote the checks as well. This operation took so little time, however, that the “brain” was soon assigned to larger tasks, like taking complete control of the company’s huge inventory. In short order it was set up to correlate every item bought, sold, or distributed, and to keep management constantly posted on what items had to be ordered and when.

Insurance companies had meanwhile discovered that these computers could easily calculate premiums, bill customers, compute agents’ commissions, and do the complex actuarial work on which rates are based. Soon offices of every description found machines, large or small, that could do the work of dozens, scores, even hundreds of clerks. The possibilities were so limitless that a leading accountant accurately predicted that computers would be to officework what the bulldozer had been to the construction industry. And hard-headed efficiency experts began to calculate the new equipment in terms of “GP’s,” or girl-power displaced.

As the machines came down in price, thousands of girls were displaced. Fortunately the average working life of young women in offices was short, marriage accounting for a constant and heavy turnover. What happened was not so much a mass firing of office help as an increasing failure to replace those who, for their own reasons, had dropped out of the labor market.

As automation spread to other fields, however, displacement became more serious, with pools of unemployment appearing here and there and quickly beginning to grow. Industries with continuous-flow processes, like oil and chemicals, were the first to go all the way. Bakeries and confectionery plants proved easy, too, for electronically-guided equipment. Even in the ’50s they could “tape a cake” simply by posting the “brain” on the exact quantities of each ingredient, the time required for mixing, and the heat and time required to bake it. Replacement of wire circuits by printed discs soon made it possible to turn out radios, television sets, and other highly complex products on an almost completely automatic basis. And perfection of the dial system made it obvious even back in the ’40s that the future of the telephone operator was dim.

By 1966 the labor situation was coming to a head. The demand for technicians and other skilled workers was insatiable, and many companies were running so many classes for their employees that their plants resembled colleges. You yourself put in five hours a week learning new techniques in the Peerless company school. On the other hand, unemployment among the unskilled and semi-skilled had reached the danger point. It looked to some of the more pessimistic experts as though the potential gains of automation might be wiped out in an ugly depression.

Fortunately, however, there were counter-forces at work, and you could already see the first effects among your friends and neighbors. For one thing, the economy had cushions in 1966 that it didn’t have in 1929. Social Security kept up the purchasing power of retired men and women, not to mention widows and dependent children.

Unemployment insurance was a powerful factor in easing the hardships of displacement. And, far more important, as far as government was concerned, wherever unemployment reached the danger point huge public works projects immediately went into operation.

The newly acquired leisure created whole new areas of employment in the so-called service businesses catering to the needs and pleasures of people with time on their hands.

At first it wasn’t easy for everyone to take all the free time that had suddenly come their way. The papers and airwaves were filled with dire forebodings of oracles predicting that the new leisure would lead to crime and national decay.

As a result, classes in adult education, long a minor phenomenon in American society, mushroomed up like an atomic . cloud. You yourself learned to paint and with your flair for gardening, give one day a week, in season, to nurse flowers and shrubs in the public squares. Your next door neighbor took up the clarinet and now works for the local band. Practically every community has its amateur theater, with a paid director.

What with your own painting and gardening, frequent trips about the country with your wife and reading you had always meant to do but never found the time for, you find yourself busier than ever. Your life is now a good deal richer than you once thought possible.

Much of your thanks for this great gain should go to the “electronic brain”—and to the men who devised it, the men who adapted it and the men who saw to it that its powers were harnessed for the benefit of the entire nation.

5 comments
  1. Casandro says: March 22, 20089:19 am

    Wow, that article really sounds like science fiction. I mean today, virtually no company actually uses computers. And those companies that do, only use them in a way like the dials displaying a value and having an operator press a button when the number reaches a certain limit.

    If computers were really used in companies, those would be virtually no employees anymore. Companies like eBay would be run by a handfull of employees instead of the 11000 they have now.

  2. SRS says: March 23, 20083:50 am

    Coming up: Careers paths strewn with really hard problems for map colorers and traveling salespersons

  3. Uncle B says: May 9, 20087:36 pm

    I remember those good days! Poor naive fellas that wrote this had no idea how greedy capitalists really are. Nowadays, women on the pill forsake their chances at motherhood, now a dirty word, for smaller pay than men and give their favors away at the office and bars. Men work as many hours as it takes to keep a job in a unionless, super competitive dog eat dog workday and spend their nights in a a drunken stupor watching porn. three out of four American kids between 12 and 16 have STDs, Most factory jobs have been exported to China, crack addicts roam the streets, crime and corruption run rampant in the government and the happy middle class refereed to in the article has been decimated by Bush and company. God Bless America? God help America!

  4. jayessell says: May 10, 20084:28 am

    Happy Magic Meteorite Day Uncle B!

  5. Tim says: March 25, 200912:14 pm

    If our carmakers were so automated even then, then why are the Japanese still kicking our asterisks? I guess they’re even more automated.

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