More factories turn to automation for the night shift

Kate Davidson Dec 1, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: There was a manufacturing report out today from a group known as ISM, the Institute for Supply Management. It’s a monthly thing they do. A look at how busy American factories are. More busy in November than a month earlier — it’s nice to be able to say.

But manufacturing in this country is changing. Because it has to. So imagine — if you will — leaving the office after a long day. The place is empty but your computer keeps doing your job. That’s the basic idea behind a growing trend in U.S. factories called ‘lights-out machining.’

From the public media project Changing Gears, Kate Davidson reports.

Kate Davidson: It’s 5:30 pm and I’m standing in a dimly lit machine shop called Hard Milling Solutions, north of Detroit. The staff has gone home for the night and I’m the only human here. But all around me machines are working — carving intricate metal molds. This is manufacturing’s new night shift: No workers required.

Now, let’s rewind a couple hours so you can meet Corey Greenwald — he started this company in 2004. And he’s kind of a lights-out evangelist.

Corey Greenwald: The great thing about these machines: They don’t take holiday, they don’t take breaks and they don’t write grievances.

The molds and dies machined here make plastic parts for cars and for people — parts like artificial hips and knees. The process is much cheaper. In the old days, running five milling machines over three shifts employed 15 workers. Now Greenwald’s shop only needs four. He says people told him for decades that automation would cost jobs.

Greenwald: You know what? They were right, they were absolutely right. What they didn’t know is, it wasn’t going to be their biggest enemy — their enemy was gonna be developing countries around the world that had really cheap labor.

There aren’t yet statistics about the scope of lights-out machining. But Debbie Holton with the Society of Manufacturing Engineers sees a trend.

Debbie Holton: There’s really an explosion of lights-out machining in the small and medium-sized manufacturers. They’re using this to compensate for the fact that they’re having trouble finding skilled workers. They need to get more from less. And they’re increasing their productivity with this technology.

Economist Dan Luria says the success of manufacturing should be measured by productivity, not jobs. He heads research at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, which helps smaller manufacturers grow. Luria says for the U.S. to compete against ultra-low wage countries, it will have to use less and less labor. He says manufacturing is going the way of agriculture — once labor intensive, now highly automated.

Dan Luria: We’ve gone from having 30 percent of the population in agriculture, to less than 2 percent today. Just as it’s very unlikely we’re going to be able to increase employment in the manufacturing sector, even if we’re successful in increasing the sector’s output.

Still, not every job can be automated. Take the company Midwest Mold, also north of Detroit. John Hill’s 30 employees design and assemble plastic injection molds. That requires direct labor. The company does use lights out machines to make the parts for those molds.

John Hill: We’re not doing this to eliminate jobs. We’re doing this to get more throughput per employee.

Hill says he spends $1,200 a month in health benefits, per employee. He says using lights-out machining helps him pay the wage and benefit costs for the employees he has. He says in that way, lights-out machining actually saves jobs.

Hill: If I was more, you know, it’s all about me, I could get rid of five more guys and buy two more machines and say life is good. But it’s hard to tell somebody they don’t have a place here anymore.

John Hill says, one day, he’d like to walk away from this job because he’s retiring. Not because his company couldn’t compete enough to survive.

I’m Kate Davidson for Marketplace.

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