Your Manufacturing Job Will Be Replaced By a Robot. Why is That a Good Thing?
Michael Buchli’s official title hardly tells the whole story. He is Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCEWorks Partner Sales Manager, and explains his role as being responsible for bringing manufacturing into the mainstream. SOLIDWORKS brought MCAD into the mainstream, wresting control of the market from PTC—and Buchli wants to do the same for manufacturing.
Buchli often finds he’s fighting a headwind from manufacturers who are dominated by design, as well as design software vendors. Both of these treat the manufacture of products as a thankless, trivial final step, with little for the manufacturing function to do because the product has been fully defined. Why not simply throw it over the wall and have the machine shop make it?
That does not work these days, says Buchli—for a variety of reasons.
There is a shortage of people in the manufacturing sector, for one thing. For another, manufacturing these days is anything but trivial; in fact, it’s downright complicated. You don’t just have a machinist with a Bridgeport [milling machine] anymore. You have 3D printing, 5-axis milling machines, EDM, custom manufacturing and robots. You need to know programming. A whole new skillset is needed for manufacturing today, and few people have it.
Born and raised in Nebraska, Buchli brings a “farmer’s ingenuity” to a small manufacturing team centered in Dassault Systèmes’ North America headquarters in Waltham, Mass. He has been there for seven years.
What did you do before joining Dassault Systèmes?
I was a Dassault Systèmes customer using SOLIDWORKS, PDM, Simulation and the 3DEXPERIENCE platform.
What was your first job at Dassault Systèmes?
I spent the first five years in R&D helping take SOLIDWORKS into the mainstream.
Why do we have a shortage of people in manufacturing?
People don’t want to work in mundane jobs anymore. Think of cashiers at Walmart. Who wants to be a cashier? Nobody. So, Walmart puts in automated checkout, and that increased throughput. That’s happening all over.
Manufacturing also requires lots of mundane activity and repetition. You load in a part, then you take it out. Load it in, take it out. The manufacturing sector is suffering from a lack of people wanting to do this. Humans like to be higher-level thinkers. They don’t want to be the person that only replaces the part every two minutes.
You couple that with the pandemic, and in the last couple of years, a lot of people stayed home. They had the chance to hit the pause button and rethink their lives. They were like, ‘we don’t want to do that anymore.’ It was going to happen anyway, but the pandemic accelerated it. And now we have a problem. We’re in a world where we have to produce more than ever because people consume more than they ever have. But we don’t have the people to make things.
How are we going to solve this problem? We can solve it through automation.
You’re saying that if you have a robotic job, you ought to be replaced by a robot, so you could move on to other, better jobs?
Yes. Companies don’t want to remove people. What they want is to have people do what they’re built to do, which is work in higher functioning jobs. Take the person loading a voting machine. They can train a robot to do that. They know what skills are needed and what has to happen. Have the robot do it, and they become the robot programmer.
You think of robots as not getting rid of people, but liberating them? But do you deny that there will be dislocation in the short term? Not everybody can be a robot programmer. Some people may not get other jobs.
Yes, it’s true. Not everybody gets to go along on the journey. But at the same time, if they’re doing a job just for the sake of a job, even if they don’t have the skillset to do the higher end [work], it isn’t really helping them. They’re in a job where they’re not able to flourish. Everyone’s life is a journey, but a lot of time, people get stuck in one place because that was the only opportunity available at the time.
How does that relate to your journey?
I started out as a manufacturing engineer and did drafting and engineering and design patent stuff. All the time, I was thinking of continuous improvement and automation. There were a number of jobs that I got into where it was doing one thing every day in drafting and engineering, over and over and over, like a machine. It was CAD in the early days. I was making drawings. Lines, arcs, circles. They didn’t want to hear about your ideas for continuous improvement. That wasn’t a good fit for me.
You were essentially a robot? Your intellectual gifts were not being used. You liberated yourself?
Yes. Look at what happened in engineering. Parametric modeling came along and allowed drafters to become designers. We’re seeing the same thing in manufacturing. The machine operator that just loads and unloads the same part every two minutes is no different than the drafter in 1999.
You propose freeing the mind. What else?
In an assembly line the work is repetitive, not ergonomic and a drain on the human body. You can get carpal tunnel or a bad back. Humans aren’t good at this, and it’s bad for them. We can take a look at that work. If it puts a human in a repetitive, bad situation, we can have automation do it. We owe it to that working human to solve their problem, because there is a long-term health risk.
Take painting an automobile. Automotive manufacturers used to have guys in the paint booth painting cars to go down the line. Now it’s all done with robots. Workers are not breathing in fumes and their health does not suffer in the long term. Even with all the PPE [person protective equipment], workers still come into contact with chemicals. That guy in the body shop that has been painting for 30 years. He’s not a healthy guy.
Stay tuned for more on manufacturing automation in Part 2 of our interview with Dassault Systèmes’ Michael Buchli.