Wires and pliers vs. the robots

I’ve been reading a lot recently about automation, creative destruction, artificial intelligence, globalization, reshoring, job loss and the like. So are you and me and my brother-in-law the boatwright going to be replaced before too long by robots? I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.
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I’ve been reading a lot recently about automation, creative destruction, artificial intelligence, globalization, reshoring, job loss and the like. So are you and me and my brother-in-law the boatwright going to be replaced before too long by robots? I wouldn’t lose sleep over it.

Still, the headlines give one pause. This is from the New York Times: The Long-Term Jobs Killer is not China. It’s Automation.

And a widely cited paper published a few years back by two researchers at Oxford University estimated that about 47 percent of the jobs in this country were at risk from automation.

It’s clear they weren’t looking at boatbuilding. Our industry has a serious challenge these days just finding enough skilled workers — or even workers willing to be trained.

In the recreational marine world, “automation” is a bit of a red herring. We would be wiser to keep watch over the plethora of pioneering technologies rippling through our lives and jobs, and how they might shape our industry.

More and more, advanced technology will come to drive the industry, says Bill Yeargin, president and CEO of Correct Craft. “However, it will be well beyond automation,” he notes. “It will be robotics, artificial intelligence, biometrics, nanotechnology, 3-D printing and much more. I have visited a couple of auto plants in the U.S., and there are hardly any people there — the cars are built with robotics.”

Those factories are building more than 3,000 cars a day, and as Yeargin points out, there are few boatbuilders that produce that many units in a year.

“Getting a return on that size investment in the boat industry would be impossible at today’s volumes,” says Yeargin. “However, the cost of technology is dropping and will continue to do so. The day will come when advanced technology will be available to everyone, including the marine industry.”

Yeargin predicts that technology will “significantly disrupt” our industry in the future. “And no one knows exactly how,” he continues. “That’s why we need to be closely following technological developments and looking for ways to adopt them in ways that make us better. Those who resist technological change will be in for a rough ride.”

NMMA president Thom Dammrich agrees that the impact of automation on jobs in the marine industry remains minimal. “Our issue is not losing jobs due to automation, but growing jobs for a growing industry with too few people to fill those jobs,” says Dammrich, who cited the theories of the late economist Joseph Schumpeter on the role of creative destruction in capitalism.

“Our economy is always advancing and destroying businesses and jobs and replacing them with new businesses and jobs. But people have to adapt and adjust. Does our education system prepare people to continually adapt and adjust?”

Dammrich says there often is a major mismatch between the skills of unemployed or displaced workers and the skills needed for new jobs.

“The issue is the willingness of people to learn new skills and to relocate where the jobs are,” Dammrich says. “America was always viewed as a very mobile society. My sense is that today it is not mobile at all. Young people are still mobile and will move to find new employment, but as boomers have aged, their willingness to move to find a new job is very weak or nonexistent. As is their willingness — or maybe ability — to learn new skills required by the new jobs created.”

So where is automation most prevalent in the industry today? The most common use in boatbuilding is CNC routers and soft-goods material cutting equipment, according to Craig Scholten, technical vice president of the American Boat & Yacht Council. “These tools create high-quality, consistent parts that support today’s customer’s high expectations,” says Scholten, who worked for 33 years in production engineering and product compliance for the companies that make up Rec Boat Holdings.

Robotics are used for spraying gelcoat and cutting fiberglass molded parts, providing repeatable high-quality products in a work environment that is not a particularly desirable one, he says.

Engineering departments utilize seven-axis mills for plug and mold building. And 3-D printers, Scholten notes, are used to make prototypes and models to share with design teams, helping them better see and provide ideas for future designs.

He, too, says production volumes in our industry, along with a wide range of boat models and options, make the cost of automation difficult to justify for many builders.

“While there are some great uses of automation in the boatbuilding industry, there remains a strong need for hands-on ‘craftsman’ talents to build the wide range of products and options,” Scholten says. “Human involvement will remain a large part of the marine manufacturing and repair industry for years to come.”

He calls it “wires and pliers” knowledge.

The ABYC is developing a high school service and repair/manufacturing skill set curriculum, Scholten says. The hardcover textbook — Fundamentals of Marine Service Technology — is complete and available for purchase. The instructor’s guide and student exams are in process. The new learning program is NOCTI-accredited and will be rolled out nationally in June, he adds.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.

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