There's a dangerous myth spreading across America, and someone needs to bring it to a halt. That myth is that robots and automation are stealing all of our jobs.
OK, it's not just a myth. Robots and automation are stealing some of our jobs; maybe even most of them. But someone must still design, develop, program and utilize the technologies that have integrated themselves into nearly every facet of our civilization.
In short, someone needs to watch over these damned robots, before they take over the whole show.
But who? On a gloomy overcast mid-January morning, I tagged along on a field trip to the Sierra Pacific Industries sawmill in Anderson with a score of students from Shasta High School's Industrial Technology department, who might just be up to the task.
Full disclosure, their teacher, Chris Scheide, is one of my two younger brothers. I occasionally substitute teach for him, so I was familiar with most of the boys (and one girl) on the bus. They're the ones most interested in mastering computer-aided drafting and the impressive collection of CNC machinery in Shasta High School's fabrication shop. They're also students of Brian Grigsby, my brother's colleague who heads the school's robotics program.
What back in the day we called wood and metal shop are now, thanks to the technology involved, considered part of the STEM curriculum. For the past decade, labor market specialists have been warning that the United States isn't training the number of students in science, technology, engineering and math (that's what STEM stands for) required to remain competitive in the global economy.
Depending upon geographic location, these shortages are occurring at every level of employment, from degreed engineers and scientists to skilled and semi-skilled workers such as machinery and electronic technicians. The field trip I tagged along on was in fact part of a growing regional effort to address the STEM shortage that involves Shasta Community College, a dozen area high schools and a host of local businesses, including Sierra Pacific, Knauf Insulation, Seco and Absolute Machine Tools.
Sierra Pacific Industries operates 14 sawmills in California and Washington and is the second largest lumber producer in the United States. Currently the mill in Anderson is processing 3000 logs per day, turning them into neat stacks of lumber some of which lately have been railed to reconstruction efforts in fire-ravaged communities in California and hurricane-struck Houston, among other disaster zones.
For safety reasons, we weren't permitted to go into the actual sawmill, so the tour began in what Sierra Pacific tech shop manager Drew Peterson calls "a sawmill within a sawmill," a makeshift museum set up in a corner of the tech shop with exhibits demonstrating how automation, optimization and miniaturization have transformed the industry.
It's all about programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, which have automated and optimized an industry that sort of looks like your grandpa's sawmill—with vastly improved work-space conditions—but is light years beyond it in terms of productivity.
Today's sawyers sit in a sealed control booth overlooking the logs directly and via an array of video cameras, controlling multiple saws with multiple panels of buttons, each corresponding to a PLC that makes the adjustment to log and machine required to get the most wood out of the process. Any step in the process that can be optimized has been optimized.
“You want a tactile environment,” Peterson explained. Translation: There's a hella lot of buttons to push. Employees who know how to operate the equipment often prove adept at designing methods to improve the process. He ticked off a list of the skills Sierra Pacific is looking for: “electricians, electrical engineers, computer engineers, instrument engineers, mechanical engineers.”
Computer algorithms and laser beams tell the saw operator exactly which boards, two-by-fours, four-by-fours, two-by-eights, etc., can be cut from any given log. Pearson explained that this process alone was formerly performed by a sawyer and a ratchet-setter riding in a moving carriage parallel to the saws. The sawyer eyeballed his measurements and the ratchet-setter had an exceptionally low life expectancy.
But here's one of the most interesting things I learned on the tour. Despite these advancements brought forth by the digital revolution, the folks on the factory floor don't put all their faith in the computers.
“We don't trust computers,” Pearson said. “We don't trust the computers to make adjustments—we do it. A computer is good at showing what should happen. An operator is needed for what actually happens.”
Somehow, I found this idea comforting. The machines still need us.
After completing our tour of the tech shop, we proceeded to the fabrication shop, situated in a cavernous structure large enough to contain a blimp and filled with heavy metal objects tended by men in standard factory safety garb.
One side of the hangar contains banks of state-of-the-art Haas CNC machinery, including 4 milling machines, 2 lathes and a bar feeder. There is a corresponding bank of manual machines as well—plenty of machinists still do it the old school way.
On the other side of the building, two enormous machines dominate the scenery, a kinetic plasma cutter, measuring 12’ x 72,' and an Omax waterjet, measuring 10’ x 20,' controlled by operators via CNC panels. Each operator was respectively burning and etching sheet steel components for a chain race the size of a railroad boxcar.
A band saw looking like some sort of over-sized Depression-era tractor and a log-stacker comprised of chains, sprockets and welded steel beams completed the scene.
“We don't just build stuff from scratch,” explained Sierra Pacific mechanical engineer Nelson Wheelehan. “We rebuild and repair machines for all of our other mills. We like to run equipment here. This stacker is going to our mill in Sonora. All our fabs are expected to be able to install the equipment as well.”
At the completion of the tour, Wheelehan handed the baton to Rick Osbrink, head of Shasta Community College's Industrial Technology Department.
“Everything you're hearing about here today, we've got a program for it,” Osbrink told the students. He wasn't kidding. Coordination with the aforementioned community partners helped Shasta Community College develop its well-attended welding program and now thanks to a timely federal grant, it has provided more of the tools needed to train the next generation of engineers and machinists.
“We've added a full machine shop,” Osbrink told me later via telephone. That includes state-of-the-art Haas CNC machinery, including a mill, lathe, press break, robotic arc welder, surface grinder, 3-D printers and an industry standard coordinate-measuring machine.
“That's the CNC side,” he continued. “There's also a manual side. Our CNC operating certificate requires students to learn to operate manual machines as well.”
For the past several years, the same thing's been happening in Shasta High School's machine shop. Every time I visit, it seems like some new piece of fancy digitized machinery has turned up, the latest being a Haas plasma cutter, albeit one on a much smaller scale than the one seen on our tour of Sierra Pacific.
It didn't happen by magic. My brother credits former Shasta High School principal Milan Woollard, who “saw STEM coming years ago and worked with us to make Shasta High School leaders in the North State,” for getting the ball rolling. Milan has since become superintendent of curriculum for the Shasta Union High School District and his successor, principal Leo Perez “has also been very supportive of our STEM programs.”
My brother also credits Mike O'Leary, director of categorical programs for the Shasta Union High School District, for being “extremely proficient at getting us grant money to purchase the equipment we need.”
Mr. Scheide, that is, my brother, said that based on surveys, 30 percent to 50 percent of his students say they plan to study engineering at the college level. Four of his former students currently work at Sierra Pacific, two in the fabrication shop and two as laborers.
As part of its effort to ensure its future workforce is trained, Sierra Pacific Industries last year offered $680,000 in scholarships to high school students in the communities in which it operates. Students on the tour who plan to attend Shasta College were encouraged to apply for a paid internship with Sierra Pacific where they can gain real hands-on experience working with today's technology, as long as they're enrolled in STEM classes.
These efforts, some of which are just now beginning to bear fruit, couldn't come a moment too soon for Sierra Pacific Industries, Knauf Industries, Seco, Absolute Machine Tools, Transfer Flow in Chico, and all the mom-and-pop machine shops that comprise northern California's manufacturing sector, which roughly accounts for a small-but-important 3 percent of the region's economic output (depending on which agency is doing the counting, it may be higher).
“The job shop, people working out of their homes, with maybe a CNC machine in the garage, is still a very viable thing around here,” Osbrink said. He recalled visiting one of the larger regional machine shops recently and noticing there wasn't an employee on the floor younger than 30. “What are they gonna do when their employees start retiring?” he worried.
That's a concern for Sierra Pacific as well, despite the millions the company has invested in local workforce development during the past two decades. It's a phenomenon affecting manufacturing across a wide swath of industries as the baby boom generation retires, particularly in rural areas that have a harder time attracting degreed engineers and scientists, as well as skilled and semi-skilled technicians, than locations such as Silicon Valley, Seattle or New York City.
“There is a huge demand for automation and controls specialists, programmable logic controller (PLC) programmers, and a next generation workforce that inherently includes technology in a variety of applications to assist in finding solutions,” said Sierra Pacific spokeswoman Becky Roe. “High schools and community colleges absolutely can help local employers meet this demand. However, there is generally a shortage of local candidates that are qualified to fill STEM career pathways.”
My brother's classes are well-attended, but he still has to contend with the fact that industrial technology, what we used to call wood shop and metal shop, isn't exactly on the radar of most high school students today.
“Some students don't even know that we have a shop,” he said. “I have talked to former graduates who say that they would have loved to take a 'shop' class, but didn't know they existed.”
That particularly applies to female students, who historically have been under-represented in STEM fields, and remain so. He has at most four to five girls in each class of 30 students.
“Some of my female students have reported that their friends don't want to take it because there are too many boys in the class,” he said.
Boys will be boys, I guess. That's a topic for another conversation. In the meantime, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about his present crop of students, who may or may not step in to fill the void in the manufacturing skills gap.
I took an informal poll after the tour of the sawmill and was pleasantly surprised to discover that just about all of the students were thrilled with the technology on display and could imagine themselves someday working at Sierra Pacific. I was concerned they might be turned off by the fact that some of the work, particular in the fab shop, involves, gasp, manual labor.
Of course, when I pressed one of them on the subject, I learned that today's kids, like kids from every generation but perhaps even more so now, have stars in their eyes. His plan? Graduate from high school, go to Cal Poly and earn as many doctorates as he can, then go to work for Elon Musk at Space-X.
A wise choice. Musk has been warning the world about automation, artificial intelligence and these damned robots a lot longer than I have.