Tech (Dis) Engagement

In preparing for this issue, I’ve spent time researching two important process technologies, robotics and lasers.

In preparing for this issue, I’ve spent time researching two important process technologies, robotics and lasers. Both of these technologies are American developments. And both, with few exceptions, are technologies that European (mainly German) and Japanese companies hold leadership positions in when it comes to research, production, and application. What is all the more disconcerting about this is that while sitting in a session at the University of Michigan Engineering School’s 12th Annual Automotive Laser Application Workshop, an event attended by automotive OEMs and suppliers from around the world (as well as equipment vendors), a German technologist whom I happened to be next to leaned over and not only made the aforementioned observation about American technology gone elsewhere, but added, “Do you know what American managers are good at? PowerPoint.” Yes, we do a remarkable job of putting on presentations. But it is the doing and deploying that we tend to have trouble with.

What is troubling about this scenario is the fact that to the extent that we have someone else do something for us we lose the ability to do it as well as we once did. Henry Ford once wrote that in some cases at the Ford Motor Co., “We manufacture just enough of a product to get thoroughly familiar with it, so that in an emergency we make it ourselves.”* A natural comment at this point might be, “But we make cars and trucks, not lasers and robots!” OK. But a question arises: “What is the likelihood that you’ll have as deep an understanding of deploying the advanced technology needed to build great cars and trucks as your German or Japanese competitors will when their literal or figurative next-door neighbors work for advanced technology companies?”

I am not suggesting that U.S. auto companies (or Tier One suppliers) suddenly organize equipment divisions and set about to get a deep familiarity with the ins and outs of making process equipment. But I do submit that there must be greater attention paid to advanced technology development and, perhaps more importantly, advanced technology implementation.

As this is an election year in the midst of what is being described as a period of “jobless recovery,” there is a great deal of attention paid to the number of jobs that are being done in other countries that had once been done in the U.S. One of the immediate points that is invariably made is that the wage rates in those various other countries are a fraction of what they are in the U.S. What’s not discussed all that often is that in some cases the people in those countries combine the willingness to do hard work with education and intelligence. Let’s face it: If the people in the other countries are doing a bad job, there would be no incentive to have the designing, engineering or manufacturing done there. In some ways, it could be argued, those “developing” areas—whether in Asia, Eastern Europe or elsewhere—are perhaps more akin to the U.S. back in the day of Henry Ford, when hard work and ingenuity could actually lead people from humble beginnings to great fortune (witness Ford himself). Nowadays, people simply mutter something about naiveté when those concepts arise.

The fundamental question is not whether those of us in the U.S. have the creativity and inventiveness that we have long been known for, but whether we have the willingness to do the hard work and make the kind of investments in our means of production that will make us as competitive as anyone else in the world. I pointed out to the man next to me, “By the way: We also invented PowerPoint.”

*Today and Tomorrow, Henry Ford (Productivity Press; New York).