Uptime: Smart Machines: Careers With A Future

EP Editorial Staff | March 13, 2013

bob williamson thumb thumbBy Bob Williamson, Contributing Editor

This economic downturn, Great Recession or whatever it’s called is taking quite a toll, given the loss of middle-class jobs across so many business and industrial sectors. At the same time, worker productivity in the U.S. is high, largely because of improving methods and the affordability of newer technologies and “smart machines.” 

Equipment, processes and technologies must be reliable for other productivity-improving methods to work. Because of that, I believe careers in industrial maintenance and reliability will not only be important, the field will grow rapidly.

There is NO alternative to skilled and knowledgeable maintenance technicians performing precision maintenance and making expert repairs. However, our productive and profitable equipment-intensive businesses that are relying on ever-smarter machines will not be able to survive if our industrial-maintenance skills shortage continues on its current track.

If I were a young(er) person looking for a solid career choice, though, I’m not sure a future in industrial maintenance and reliability would appear anywhere on my list of possibilities. Unfortunately, these high-paying jobs are often hidden from view and/or overpowered by media sound bites with narrowly focused analysis.

What would make teachers, counselors, school administrators or parents advise a child or young adult to consider industrial maintenance and reliability? To start with, what the heck IS maintenance and reliability anyway? “If that means working in dirty, smoke-belching factories, there’s no future in it,” they would probably say. And they could come up with lots of anecdotal evidence from a variety of media outlets to support that perception. (More about that later…)

The truth is that technology in our basic industries is shifting as older systems become obsolete. Our national technology-based economic advantage begins in mining, farming and manufacturing, whether by traditional processes or smart technologies. As the technology paradigm shifts, not only do unprepared people and businesses lose out, so does our economy. We can’t afford to let that happen.


OK, so you caught me making a bad joke. Let’s look at some of the real stories around us…

Have you seen or heard recent news or opinion pieces discussing how “smart machines can replace workers” or asking you to “imagine a future when machines will have all the jobs?” I have. No wonder readers/listeners/viewers/recipients might decide that technology really is taking over our lives! Some in the scientific community are even buying into the idea. As one computer expert recently claimed, “Everything that humans can do, a machine can do.”

Permit me to add my own two cents to the dialogue: “Everything that humans can do, a machine can do. . . except maintain itself!

How did machines get so smart?
Equipment, processes and facilities that operate with microprocessor-based central processing units (CPUs) are referred to as “smart machines” because they can replace certain mechanical devices, mental processing and work done by people. But they still come with an HMI—a “human-machine interface” that lets people communicate with a smart machine.

Today, smart machines go well beyond the computers and industrial-control systems to which we’ve become accustomed. Consider these examples:

  • Drone aircraft
  • Autonomous cars (i.e., cars that drive themselves)
  • Library “Book Bots” to store and retrieve books
  • Long-haul, heavy-duty driverless trains (for mining)
  • Driverless mine-haul trucks
  • Automated passenger rail systems

Smart machines like these can diagnose problems, communicate to humans and avoid accidents. On the other hand, contrary to computer scientists’ and engineers’ dreams and statements, they really can’t do everything that humans can do.

Wanted: smarter people
One of the key takeaways from this discussion is the fact that smart machines need smarter people to take care of them. Every advancement in industrial technologies, since James Watts’ steam engine or Abraham Darby’s iron smelter in 1770s England, has led to the need for an increasing number of higher-skilled workers replacing lower-skilled and craft labor. And that trend has continued through time: New machines need smarter people to build and maintain them. That means “human capabilities” must match the pace of smart-machine deployment.

While technology is capable of replacing labor and human thinking, is it really capable of strapping on a tool belt, performing preventive maintenance, replacing worn parts, replenishing fluids, rebuilding components, tightening loose connections or diagnosing the causes of mechanical failures and developing a routine to prevent future failures? I don’t think so.

Smart machines still depend on nuts and bolts, motors and bearings, shafts and seals, drive belts and chains, wheels and tires, light bulbs and LEDs, sensors and wiring and any number of other common mechanical and electrical/electronic parts. The dirty little secret about today’s heralded smart machines is that they can get pretty stupid when they drift out of calibration, their logic becomes corrupted or they experience component wear, misalignments, failures, etc.

Advancing technology, job-loss, skills shortage, extinction…
The domestic U.S. textile sector is a good historical example of an industry that replaced workers with better, more efficient machines—and then found itself penalized by skills shortages to the point of near extinction. Throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, textile machines got smarter, leading to a growing number of mill workers losing their jobs. In fact, over time, advances in textile-machine technology made many highly experienced, yet lower-skilled, workers obsolete. Still, wages continued to grow. The tipping point came when machine technology advanced faster than the industry’s operating and maintenance skills and knowledge. Eventually, low-wage countries became highly competitive using our older textile-manufacturing technologies. That’s when a huge portion of the textile industry shifted offshore.

There is a seldom-told interesting backstory to the textile industry’s decline and eventual offshoring: As the press relentlessly reported on this sector’s projected downturn, many top-skilled workers began seeking jobs outside textile manufacturing. Moreover, with stories of the industry’s demise casting a pall over many homes and schools, career-choice discussions with students and young adults began to put more emphasis on the value of “college educations”—or anything BUT textiles. Ultimately, when experienced “high-tech textile-machine technicians” left the mills or died out, the replacement pipeline ran dry. Training new hires was seen as a cost rather than an investment. The U.S. textile industry’s smart machines were no longer productive.

A call to action
Let’s bring this discussion into the 21st century—today. Since the 1980s, smart machines have been embraced and feared at the same time: embraced because they work fast and are consistently reliable and repeatable; feared because they can lead to the need for fewer people in the workplace. Interestingly, smart-machine costs have decreased as their capabilities have increased, something that has made them more affordable for smaller businesses lured to the glamour of high-tech productivity improvements at a low cost.

Businesses across the board, however, should keep in mind that “smart machines” will NOT overcome skills shortages, nor will they meet the demand for skilled and knowledgeable industrial maintenance and reliability technicians. What they will do is require workers in our field to have more skills and more knowledge than in the past. 

Act now. Let the media in your community (and your particular industry) know how skills shortages—now and into the foreseeable future—are penalizing your operations. To combat miscellaneous sound bites about manufacturing job losses and waning skills shortages, tell your own stories about the critical need for more highly skilled industrial maintenance and reliability technicians. Our economic well-being depends on reliable machines of all types, especially in mining, farming and manufacturing  (the three sources of original wealth in the global economy). Smart machines and the smart people that build, operate and maintain them are among the most important parts of the equation. MT

1. In Jan. and Feb. 2013, the Associated Press distributed the following articles on middle-class jobs and technology. Click the links below to see each article.

•Loss Of Middle-Class Jobs Com-pounded By Tech Advances (Part 1)

•Practically Human: Can Smart Machines Do Your Job? (Part 2)

•Will Smart Machines Create A World Without Work? (Part 3)

•Imagining a Future When Machines Have All The Jobs

•Is Technology A Job Killer? A Few History Lessons

•Smart Machines Create Hands-Free Workplaces

2. Zuboff, Soshana, 1989. In The Age Of The Smart Machine: The Future of Work And Power, Basic Books

Robert  Williamson, CMRP, CPMM,  and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Email:

FYI: Bob will present a full-day Workshop at MARTS 2013 entitled “Putting All The Pieces Together For 100% Reliability.” Reserve your seat now. For more details and/or to register, go to 





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