Ask Jack: The Robot and the Damage Done

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Long-time TTAC readers may recall that your humble author has worked a variety of unglamorous jobs in the retail end of the auto business — salesman, title department for one major finance company, skip tracer and junior approval officer for another — but I’ve also worked two stints in vehicle production itself. I never worked on the line directly, but I worked with various plants and production facilities on a fairly regular basis. Once I managed to figure out a pretty major problem and save the automaker in question about 45 minutes’ worth of downtime for their whole North American operation. That’s a savings measured in millions of dollars. I was so pleased with myself, I ran out, hopped in my old Porsche 911, and went to Donatos for a celebratory pizza with double cheese.

They wrote me up for taking a long lunch.

I bet that never happened to Bob Lutz.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of building cars — and everything else — in the United States. (You can find out more about American-made products and services at my hobby blog.) When we build real, tangible products here in the USA, we change hundreds of thousands of lives for the better. We preserve families and give young people a chance at a life beyond the social-welfare system. We also make it possible for minorities and disadvantaged people to enter the middle class and live the American dream.

Unfortunately, as a reader recently reminded me, these benefits don’t come without an associated cost, and that cost can be measured in blood.

Ben writes:

G’day from Australia, where in September we lose our last auto manufacturer when GM closes shop. I’ve put my money where my mouth is and bought one of the last LS3 Commodore Wagons, and I love it.

My question is: how do you keep manufacturing jobs in developed economies without the workers paying this horrendous price? Any insights from your time at Honda would be much appreciated.

The article to which Ben links is a Bloomberg piece on a variety of horrifying injuries and fatalities that have occurred in manufacturing plants all across “The New South.” Much of the article is devoted to an incident in which a malfunctioning robot “came alive” and killed a young woman. There is also some discussion about a dirty little secret of the “transplant factories,” both in the South and in the Midwest: many of the people working in the plant are not employees of the automaker itself, but rather low-wage subcontractors from “body shop” staffing firms. These intermediate employers serve an important role: they allow companies like Honda and Toyota to try people out for a few years before giving them full employment with the mother company. Unfortunately, far too often the “temps” are treated like disposable garbage instead of potentially valuable future employees.

I’ve been inside many auto manufacturing plants, and I’ve seen a lot of scary stuff. You have to keep your wits about you at all times. There’s no room for stupid people, or easily distracted people, in buildings where molten steel pours from fifty feet above your head and 10-ton stamping presses move with the unpredictable agility of field mice. It’s work that ages you before your time; the first-shifters with whom I shared a parking lot at my manufacturing gig were often a decade or even two decades younger than I was but they had the lined faces and gnarled hands of 60-year-olds.

There is a real human cost to manufacturing, no matter where it is. But I’ll say this: I’ve lived in small towns where they had an auto plant, and I’ve lived in small towns where they did not, and I’ll take the former every day of the week. This is not to minimize the terrible injuries that happen in manufacturing work, mind you. But in places where Average Joes and Janes have no hope of living-wage employment, things quickly spiral into a nightmare of crystal meth and unchecked violence.

In fact, one of the people covered in the Bloomberg article had left his life as a drug dealer to work at the plant where he lost his arm. Can we truly say that he would have been any better off had he remained a criminal? Don’t believe Steely Dan; drug dealing is not always a glamour profession and not all of its practitioners grow up to live in the suburbs and drive steel-grey Accords like honest members of society.

I’d suggest the answer to the problem of inadequate workplace safety is more American manufacturing, not less. The Bloomberg writer points out, rather astutely, that the New South plants are expected to compete with Bangladesh and Mexico. Maybe if we had a sensible tariff plan in place to account for the human cost of overseas production, we could slow the line down a bit here in America. Your economics professor might not like it, but he’s never had to put 400 dashboards together every hour for 12 hours straight — and he’s never had to tell his children that the company closed the plant and sent Dad’s job somewhere far, far away.

[Image: By Siyuwj (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Drzhivago138 Drzhivago138 on Apr 21, 2017

    I suppose I should throw in my late-night $0.02 (or $0.015 after taxes) with "the most dangerous game," farming. Every farmer and farm kid I know (myself included) has been injured to some degree doing something on the farm, but unlike even a generation ago, no one has been maimed or killed. My dad actually had a distant cousin/uncle who attended another cousin's funeral in 1980 (the guy had a heart attack in the middle of town, broad daylight, as he was checking his timing belt or something) and then was gored to death by a bull later that same day. We have a hay accumulator and a bale grapple to do the absolute worst job on the farm, and can now put up 500 small bales of hay in 95-degree weather without feeling like death is imminent. We also just recently got autosteer, but we have so many contour fields that its usefulness is currently limited. This summer might (finally) be the first where I work in the field for which I studied , and not in the field in which I was brought up. I dunno if there's any link between any of those thoughts. And oh yeah, this was actually a pretty good article. It's possible (but difficult) to invite controversy yet exemplify good taste at the same time.

    • Lou_BC Lou_BC on Apr 21, 2017

      I have to agree that Jack did a wonderful job on this one. As we have seen with recent "opinion" pieces, the author sets the tone. This has been one of the most civil political discussions I've ever seen here.

  • Salzigtal Salzigtal on Apr 30, 2017

    Edward Bernays would be proud of "subcontractors from “body shop” staffing firms". My 1st Vacuum Tube Valley boss never missed an opportunity to answer their phone calls with "Sorry, we don't need any temps right now and we don't use pimps". I fell off my drafting stool. A pre-internet ROFLMAO.

  • Lou_BC "In 2007, 85% of Americans drove themselves to work and 6% rode with someone else. But by 2018, while the 6% of Americans who carpool has remained constant, there has been a decrease in the percentage of those who drive themselves to work, edging down to 77%." .................. If people can't recharge at home, it would be logical to set up charging infrastructure at workplace parking lots. That would cover 77% of the population. An 8 hour workday should be adequate to keep an EV charged.
  • Jeff Dirty Harry with the blue Ford Custom 500.   "I know what you're thinking, punk. You're thinking "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Now to tell you the truth, I've forgotten myself in all this excitement. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself a question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?"
  • Picard234 You mean you built a time machine....out of a DeLorean!?
  • Lou_BC Too much money.
  • Lou_BC "The Cannonball Run" "The Gumball Rally""Corvette Summer""Duel""Gone in 60 Seconds"