In response to:
A Parable of Automation from the September 27, 1984 issue
To the Editors:
I was quite interested in James Fallows’ review of David Noble’s Forces of Production [NYR, September 27, 1984] and the subsequent “Exchange on Automation” [NYR, December 20, 1984] between Mr. Fallows and B. Kuttner.
Notably missing from this “Exchange,” as it is from virtually all discussions of industrial automation except Noble’s, is input from the people actually affected by the “new technology,” in this case working machinists.
Mr. Kuttner’s basic point, that job shops are fundamentally different from large corporations in the way they use NC [Numerical Control] and in the relationship of their workers to their NC equipment, is both untrue and blatantly self-serving. There is no logical reason a small shop manager should view NC differently from a large shop manager. Noble himself briefly addresses this point in FOP (p. 327).
In my present shop, the programming for the NC milling machines is done only by the foreman. The machinists make setups (usually to the foreman’s direction) and change parts. Though there’s been talk of teaching someone else, it hasn’t happened yet.
At my last shop, the NC machinists originally did all the job design, programming, tooling, etc. The year before I left, the shop bought a microcomputer system. The manager told me they were going to transfer NC programming to this system (and they had already transferred much of the job planning to the office). On other occasions, this same manager voiced opinions about NC usage that were virtually quotes of the corporate managers Noble interviewed for his book.
It may be true, as Mr. Kuttner asserts, that “the transition to the new technology” won’t work successfully without using machinists. In fact, Noble’s book (p. 338) has quotes to the same effect. But what most, if not all, NC owners want is part-changing, button-pushing robots—with a machinist’s knowledge. Since they can’t buy such a thing, they draft machinists into the job.
A closely related example is in the newer technology of wire EDM (electric discharge machining), used a lot in tool and die shops. It’s true there’s a lot to learn before a machinist can run a wire EDM machine well (though not nearly as much as traditional diemaking requires). But a couple of wire EDM machinists and a few machines make obsolete most of the skills of a shop full of diemakers. Such a shop can also hire much less experienced personnel.
In short, based on my own observations, that of other machinists I’ve talked to and my reading of the trade journals, job shops are not fundamentally different from the large corporations Noble discusses. If small shops using NC don’t do things the way the big boys do, it’s only because they can’t afford to. When they can, they do.
Further, microcomputers are now cheap enough that any shop that can afford NC machines can afford a computer to program them with. And, though software lags some-what, NC programming systems for micros have been on the market for some time, and more are sure to come. It is, in other words, only a matter of time before all small shops can do things the way the big boys do. And when they can, most will.
Finally, Mr. Fallows, good liberal that he is, takes considerable pains to distance himself from Noble’s class analysis of technological development, claiming these ideas are inadequately substantiated and unpersuasive. Though it’s true Noble has no quotes from corporate presidents to prove his point, he has more than enough evidence to interest anybody willing to listen first and judge later. Mr. Fallows’ belittling and distortion of this aspect of the book is unworthy of the rest of his fine review.
Doug Hazen, Jr.
Salem, New Hampshire
May 9, 1985