APS Plastics & Manufacturing Blog

The Future of Meaningful Work

Over the past few years, most of us have heard a variety of technology trends that will soon displace, or at least disrupt, traditional jobs.  One of the most impactful trends is “automation,” which promises to eliminate many well-paying jobs.  There are numerous examples of automation, including self-driving trucks and robotics in manufacturing.

One of my biggest concerns is the human impact these technology trends will have on millions of industrial workers around the world.  We shouldn’t try to stop what seems to be the inevitable wave of change; because ultimately, the entire world will benefit in one way or another.  Rather, I am choosing to focus on how we create a new path to meaningful and honorable work for people who will not have the kind of jobs they used to.


I have spent my career around “industrial workers,” starting in a chemical plant in Pasadena, TX, as a reliability engineer. Even before my first real job, I spent one summer working as a helper alongside my dad who was a pipe fitter.  I’ve been lucky to be around people who make real things with their hands in tough environments, and have grown to love the people who do this kind of work.  There is a certain timeless honor that comes from the people who make things while in contact with the physical world.  When you are around someone who has to make his or her creation fold into the real world, you gain an appreciation for the level of creativity and hard work required to do the job, and see the joy that comes from this making. 

Anyone that has built real things knows first-hand the immediate feedback you get from it: seeing your creation coming to life and occupying a previously empty space. Longing to build real things is deeply coded in our biology.  We are tactile creatures that need contact with things.  You can find evidence of this by studying the amount of nerve endings and cognitive power that are dedicated to our hands. We’ve been beautifully designed to feel things and this has allowed us to build with our hands as tools.  


Notwithstanding Elon Musk’s thought about living in a simulation, we will always live in a “real”, physical world that needs physical products.  And these products must be made somehow. Humans will always play a role in the making of good things.  Their role in the making will (and must) change.

The looming displacement of industrial workers as more machines take on tasks previously done by humans is concerning.  Not being able to do meaningful work can make us unhappy; there are plenty of studies that support this idea.  Telling a displaced factory worker to go back to community college to become a “knowledge worker” just isn’t a good enough solution. By the way, fixing a pump or wiring a building takes a tremendous amount of knowledge; so, industrial workers are already knowledge workers.  

Industry leaders must take bold action, not only to embrace technological changes, but to address how our people will work in the future.  I am deeply driven by this purpose:  to make the working lives of industrial workers better, more meaningful, and honorable


For our people to embrace this future of work, the most important problem to address is the human-to-machine (H2M) interface:

Industrial machines can be large, unwieldy hunks of steel.  They are mechanically complex and becoming electronically complex.  Historically, engineers have designed with the machine as the center of design, and forced industrial workers to adapt to the machines.  As a result, the interface between humans and machines has been non-intuitive, where people are trying to “control” complex machines through a poor H2M interface.  We have to address this interface through thoughtful, user centered design that takes into account “user experience,” a generally foreign idea in the industrial world.  This must change to give legacy workers a chance to properly operate the increasingly complex machines we are making.

The benefits for solving the H2M problem are immense.  Not only do we provide a bright future for millions of industrial workers, but we also leverage the remarkable cognitive surplus that will be created as these workers are liberated from performing rote, repetitive or even dangerous tasks, and are able to turn their amazing creativity and hard work on the big problems of the world.

Imagine what they will make...


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Topics: Insider Communication technology automation apprenticeship 4.0 manufacturing 4.0 Industry 4.0