The Automatic Factory

by George Turner

* Electronically typed and edited by Juan Schoch for educational research purposes from New Outlook, circa 1953. This notice is not to be removed.


Reputable scientific minds tell us that we are on the verge of far-reaching automatic controls, that the day is not so distant when factories may function without human hands.

Palmer Nicholls, vice-president of the Pacific division of Bendix Aviation, has announced the establishment of a new division for the manufacture of computers, “so intricate they would occupy the time of thousands of mathematicians for many lifetimes.” The headquarters will be at Hawthorne, California.

To judge from the available data, the advent of the automatic factory will be fairly gradual, but may occur widely in the more favored countries earlier than many expect. Among the less progressive countries automatization now, at least, seems an advance of the far future, and, pending such unfoldment the international disparity of currencies and costs will apparently be emphasized.

It is not too much to hope that the advent in question will release fresh energies for the benefit of the individual and for mankind at large, for too great a proportion of the world population has always had to survive through drudgery. With the vast demand for technologically trained people today, it is hard to conceive of any considerable unemployment in these ranks. Yet, it may eventually occur. In the factories the displacement of manual work has been accelerating rapidly in the last few years.

Because business and society have always adjusted themselves to changed conditions, we can assume that any dislocation caused by machines will not prove perennial. Organized labor will have less power than in the past, and its dream of a political hierarchy can hardly be fulfilled if the automaton comes generally into use. Creative abilities of the individual, that priceless incentive to produce new and better things, may or may not suffer. Pride of craftsmanship has already waned since mass production came into being. But we face a revolutionary change in the standard of living, and thus far the optimists have presented a picture which is on the whole encouraging.

The industrialists are disposed to say that changes will come so gradually that labor will accommodate itself to the situation, and this view seems shared to some extent by impartial investigators. In any case, an array of problems of considerable magnitude is likely to arise.

Push-button control of the processes of manufacture is closer at hand than we realize, according to Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, former professor in chemistry at Caltech, who now maintains 17 plants in and near Pasadena. “We are in the midst of a technological revolution, the outcome of which is bound to boost our living standards and well-being greatly,” he is quoted as saying.

Dr. Ernest Nagel, professor of philosophy at Columbia University, declared in the September issue of the Scientific American that automatization, while never to become universal, will steadily increase. Dr. Nagel sees possible dangers in a changing productive system, but adds, “There is good empirical basis for the belief that automatic control, by increasing the material well-being of a greater fraction of mankind, will release fresh energies for the cultivation and flowering of human excellence.”

Dr. Wassily Leontief, professor of economics at Harvard University, writes that “Naturally automatization, while solving some problems, will everywhere create new and possibly more difficult ones. In Western Civilization the liberation from the burdens of making a living has been going on for some time, and we have been able to adjust to the new situation gradually.” He reminds us, however, that in the past the stimulus for educational advancement has arisen from economic necessity.

An optimistic outlook was given by Moulton Goff, vice-president of Employers Mutuals, in a recent radio talk. “An automatic factory, in part, is already here. A milling machine developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, converts information on punched tape into the contours of a finished product. . . .

“When these automatic factories do arrive, what happens then? Will the workman be forced to put away his lunch bucket and his overalls and face the future with idle hands? . . . We need have no fear of the automatic factory, for when it does arrive we already will have begun to move in new directions of employment and endeavor.”

On the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles, a group of young mathematicians, engineers and management specialists, headed by Dr. Melvin E. Salveson, assistant professor of production management, have been working on an “electronic brain”, by which it is hoped to reduce production control problems, foresee bottlenecks and prevent duplication of effort. Helping this experiment is the logistics branch of the Office of Naval Research.

F. W. Braun of Wausau, Wisconsin, addressing Fire and Casualty Insurance men on the subject of future risks, cited an automatic cylinder block production line at Ford’s Cleveland plant which is said to have a rated output capacity double that of any other in the industry “because an automatic line can feed and unload machines twice as fast as manual operation.” He declared that “the time will come when entire operations will be conducted by automatically controlled machinery.”

In transportation and agriculture, labor saving inventions have been rapidly displacing employees. On the docks loading and hoisting apparatus in new forms is making its appearance. Mass production everywhere calls for the economy of time and energy. Although automatic controls of one kind or another have existed for hundreds of years and the basic principles of feedback were in operating fifty years ago, there has been a phenomenal increase in the use of such devices since 1940. Charts presented by Prof. Leontieff show that the sales of instruments for industrial recording and controlling have risen in al almost vertical line since 1950.

It seems of utmost importance to know in advance of so extensive a transmutation of working hours whether men would use leisure wisely or squander it. We know that what would be true of beginning years or of one community might not characterize subsequent years or all communities. To have more time for healthy recreation, study and participation in family, neighborhood and public affairs would be a great blessing for all, but to wallow in idleness and dissipation, to grow more amusement-mad than we are already, is to be avoided like plague. There are many auspicious signs of increasing seriousness on the part of people young and old, and just as truly as that life has been too hard for the majority in the past, it may be that through a kindly Providence and human ingenuity and will the lot of mankind may improve. Withal, we cannot forget that one of life’s greatest blessings  is work – with sweat, without tears.

Whether such tremendous innovation will spell greater contentment for man, affording more time for self-improvement, or whether problems of employment will dislocate business and society, is being contemplated seriously by leaders of industry and educators. The impact of progress, when too sudden, can be annihilative.