Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The "S" word, Part II


Frustrated with life

This posting could as well be subtitled: Green, Manufacturing and Education

I woke up this morning to read about a riot at a Foxconn factory in China where, according to the New York Times, the state-run media in China had reported that some 5,000 police officers were called to the factory complex to respond to "a riot that began as a dispute involving a group of workers and security guards at a factory dormitory." The article quotes an interview with an employee who had posted images of the disturbance on line as indicating that it started as a disagreement between workers and security personnel …  “But I think the real reason is they were frustrated with life.”

Frustrated with life. There's a social impact of manufacturing for you!

The cause of some of this frustration is, apparently, rooted in concerns about promises made to workers, often migrant workers from long distances in China arriving to find that the pay package they were promised is not what they are getting. Roll in a bit of different cultural traditions linked to the different provinces the workers come from and it can be a volatile mix of social issues and different style/customs.

Is this the future of manufacturing?

In the part I of these postings on social impacts in sustainability we were speaking about resiliency and some of the societal dimensions of sustainability. I introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness relating to things such as:

- Economic Wellness
- Environmental Wellness
- Physical Wellness 
- Mental Wellness
- Workplace Wellness
- Social Wellness, and
- Political Wellness

I mentioned that trying to characterize these in a practicable way is always a challenge - but, at least for the workplace wellness and mental wellness, perhaps the Foxconn employees have offered a view to this. 

If we look at some of the issues gripping the US at the moment we might also suggest they stem from "frustration with life." Joblessness, specially among certain segments of the population and in the manufacturing sector, debt (personal and governmental due to the downturn and unsound investments), maybe even "too much information.!" Thanks to the internet, twitter, cable TV, blogs (!), etc. we can now share everyone's pain and perceptions of reality. Are we better off?!

So, where does green, manufacturing, and education come into this?

Not surprisingly, as an educator and working for a university, I have a strong belief in the power of education to make people's lives better. I would certainly expect that, for Foxconn, education of the workforce along with  attention to the other "happiness" elements above, could swing some of these folks back to feeling more optimistic about life.

Wouldn't that be a good metric of social impact? Is what I (or my company, or my boss, or my government, or my **fill in the blank**) am doing making anyone else to feel more optimistic about life? And, I hasten to add, I don't mean the kind of optimism that advertisements pitch to make you buy a product of service. I mean real optimism.

As an educator I feel optimistic. That may seem odd given the budget cuts, dis-interest in science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM subjects) of grade and high school students, the loss of employment in manufacturing, the bad rap teachers get in some places, etc. But, education can do something.

Take manufacturing for instance. I speak to a lot of companies about their employment needs. All of them are concerned about increasing productivity, improving or controlling quality, insuring they are flexible enough in their production to respond to the rapidly changing consumer needs (and how the supply chain yanks their company around in response) … and being energy and material efficient and sustainable. That is, green.

Their workforce, in increasingly automated factories to get the productivity, quality, re-configurability, needs to be increasingly well educated. Or, at least, educated with some technical competence in metrology, machine control, automation, geometry/math, etc. That's what education does - educate people to have these basic capabilities - and more.

So, what about the green angle? The companies who are working hard to be proactive making quality products and responsive to the customer/re-configurable are doing this for a number of reasons, competitiveness, etc. but also to make money. And cutting expenses is part of making money. And reducing energy consumption, increasing yield, increasing material utilization efficiency, minimizing waste all add to the bottom line. They also define strategies of green.

We need to add to this basic education on energy, earth abundant materials, and green and sustainable technologies to the suite of other subjects. 

It is education that offers a future … one that the individual can have more control of. It is education that makes individuals competitive in any field, including manufacturing. It is education in manufacturing that offers a career to a wide range of individuals and not just those "on the coasts" making apps to engage in and keep track of our social network.

And it is application of this education to manufacturing in the US that offers real optimism. Make sure that education addresses both the core needs of business (throughput and productivity, quality, and flexibility) but also insures those core needs are met with lowest impact and most efficient use of resources. 

We need to keep reminding those around us who don't want to support education (at any level) that a core element of sustainability is to insure future generations have the same opportunity as we do. If you don't like that, follow one of the many versions of the "golden rule" that permeate most religious beliefs. I talked about that back in March of 2011 in a blog about avoiding "environmental tsunamis". This is good for US, good for manufacturing and good for the planet.

The overwhelming desire for education and the impressive "leverage" it offers to the future keeps me optimistic and will insure we are effectively doing the most to reduce the "impact/GDP" that the IPAT equation reminds us is a goal. 

And that's the future of manufacturing!

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