The Wall Street Journal ran a great story about Stanley Black & Decker’s aborted attempt to bring tool manufacturing to the state of Texas.
Turning manual tasks over to machines, which are supposed to churn out goods with minimal human involvement and maximum productivity, poses its own challenges. The Craftsman factory’s first-of-its-kind system was supposed to make tools so efficiently that costs would be on par with China, but ex-employees said it had problems that couldn’t be fixed before the company decided to pull the plug.
This is always so simple in theory. Cut out a bunch of labor, automate with machines, save money! Of course this is largely the story of modern manufacturing, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
Rival companies that make mechanics’ tools in the U.S. say their factory lines are partially automated but still rely heavily on workers’ skills. “The artistry of the human being that’s making those wrenches—that matters,” said Wright Tool President Tom Futey, whose company manufactures high-end tools in Barberton, Ohio.
Nick Pinchuk, CEO of Snap-on, another premium brand, said that in 2010 the company’s U.S. factories had a roughly 100-to-1 ratio of workers to robots. Today it’s 8 to 1, but the gradual transition helped the company identify the optimal roles for humans and machines, he said.
There are certain roles automation hasn’t been able to replace.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and roboticist Julie Shah said people often have expertise and flexibility machines can’t match. She recalled an aerospace company asking whether it could automate the work of an employee who had decades of experience heat-treating components in precise and varied ways.
“You dig into it and you’re like, ‘No, that is an extremely computationally complex problem,’ ” she said. “It’s really easy to undervalue the judgment and experience that someone brings to what seems to be like a fairly simple task.”
There are stories of Tesla and other modern manufacturing brands that have pushed ahead and through this painful process. It’s possible that had the company not switched gears so soon that things could have ended up working out.
Some ex-employees said the Craftsman factory seemed to be getting closer to solving its production problems before Stanley began thinning the workforce. Heltne said he and a colleague were laid off this past December.
The plant, which never reached its planned staffing level of 500 employees, was down to 175 in March when Stanley announced the shutdown. The company said the same day that it was closing a plant in Cheraw, S.C., that had 182 employees who made utility knives and portable storage units, folding those operations into other factories.
The lesson would seem to be if you make changes, make them slowly or at least carefully and gradually. And if you are bold to reinvent the wheel, be preprared for a bumpy ride.