Monday, February 23, 2015

Three-D Employment

Jobs are disappearing in the economy. There are a variety of reasons for this. Some see it as an extinction. That is, they see jobs overall disappearing. Others see it as more of a migration. That is the work remains, but the occupations themselves come and go.

One of the defining characteristics of the last 200 years has been automation and mechanization. So much that was done by hand in the 19th Century was done by machines in the 20th Century. In the last two decades of the 20th Century, the age of the microchip, the machines became smarter and became more sophisticated.

These sophisticated machines are altering our workplace. A recent Forbes article described 20 Careers Headed for the Dustbin. Several of them seem to fit the sophisticated machine hypothesis of causation:

Technology has been leveraged in some of these industries. Farmers are more productive due to mechanization and science. Mail service has been changed by email. Scanning and digital storage have decreased the need for file clerks. The examples abound. 

Business Insider hypothesizes that jobs in some sectors are becoming obsolete because they "rely on older technologies." The technology is changing. Technology is a multiplier that allows fewer humans to accomplish more. Business Insider says notes "technological advances allow current farmers to accomplish the same tasks with fewer workers." 

That article predicts declines in employment for meter-readers. For years, the gas and electric companies have sent people walking our neighborhoods. They check the meters on the side of our home to see what our energy use was, then the company bills us for it. Technology is changing that. The meters are now reporting in on their own; no need for someone to visit your home. Technology yet again. 

Have we reached the nadir of employment issues? Whether you believe that jobs are disappearing, or merely migrating, is the shift related to technology over? 

A few years ago, the news reached me of a device called a three-d printer. Similar to the printer upon which you could produce a hard copy of this post, but different. The three-d printer applies layers, just like your computer printer applies layers of ink. But, the three-d printer applies more layers. It applies so many layers that it actually builds something out of what it is applying. Think of laying down enough "ink" to create a shape you could touch and feel.

That is not an exact explanation, nor is it scientific. Imagine a printer head that does not deliver ink, but instead delivers plastic. The plastic is applied in a pattern, controlled by the computer. The layers of plastic build upon one another until a shape is created. You could print a model car, a working gun, a guitar, or more. You can print an automobile. Last summer I read about a three-d printer used to create a prosthetic arm for a thirteen year-old. How about printing an artificial heart valve? A computer program directs the movement of a "printer-head" and the printer "builds" something useful. Here is a slideshow of some other items. 

Amazing! It seems likely that this technology will change manufacturing as we know it. The technology seems like science fiction, but here in the Twenty-first Century, we are witnessing it. And, it may not stop there. 

Yahoo reports that very (as in VERY) large three-d printers could be used to build houses. That is not a misprint, a house. There are some pictures in the article. They claim "it's not as crazy as it sounds." We just need a "much bigger printer." The authors describe a machine that would be set-up on your neighborhood lot, which would "print" using concrete or plastic, layer upon layer, until a house is created. Instead of a crew of framers or bricklayers, picture a single person sitting at a laptop monitoring the print process, just as you would watch the pages of a brief come out of your Hewlett-Packard or Epson.

Sound like science fiction? The article concedes that widespread use is years away, but get this, it has already happened on a few occasions. Buildings are being "printed." At one project in China "10 houses were printed in less than 24 hours at a cost of about $5,000 each." The Chinese have printed a five story building. They say the cost of such buildings are reduced 50% to 80%, with similar reductions in construction waste and production time. 

Someone will have to write the programs. Someone will have to design the house, just like you write that brief. But just as the printer then creates your brief without someone putting letters in a printing press, the printer will produce the building. Sure, someone will have to monitor it, and load the material, just like you add toner or ink to your Epson. Unlike the printer in your office, someone will have to repeatedly set-up these house printers, take them back down and transport them from job site to job site. But this could mean a marked reduction in the number of people that are required to build a house or other structure (one man printed a castle).

The world is changing around us. What seems like science fiction one day becomes a reality the next. With this progress, what will happen to jobs? Computers killed the typing pool as surely as the internal-combustion engine killed the buggy whip business. Will three-d printers similarly affect the building industry, or perhaps all of manufacturing?  What will the workforce look like in twenty or fifty years? Are we as an industry ready to make workers' compensation a relevant part of that end?

Maybe they will figure out a way to three-d print a judge?

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