Machine tool automation and economic distortion from the military-industrial complex

Apologists for the bloated military budget of the US will often raise the point about how military spending supports technological development.  Aside from depending on a religious understanding of technological progress as inherently “good”, this argument is flawed given the fact that military spending has sometimes deformed scientific and engineering R&D into more inefficient and ineffective directions.

Take numerical control (N/C) machine tool automation systems developed in the 1950s and deployed throughout the 1960s and 1970s.  N/C development was chosen by the military and their partners in select universities and corporations, and thus ended up crowding out alternative technology pathways. According to David Noble’s Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (1986) N/C systems were 1) far more expensive and complicated than the competing technology of record-playback (R/P), which was easy to program and use, and 2) expensive compared with the benchmark system because of how the unique needs of the military industries crowded out cheaper, general-purpose N/C systems.  As a result, domestic production of N/C systems lagged for the civilian market (which dominated the metal work industry), and allowed for the domination of foreign machine tool firms.

Fujitsu Fanuc, a leading Japanese machine tool builder, in 1973 alone produced more N/C machines designed for the commercial market than all US machine tool firms combined.  Likewise, in West Germany, machine tool builders concentrated upon the commercial market.  According to Paul Stockmann of Pittler–a central figure in German N/C development–German manufacturers were locked out of US military contracts and the APT Program and found, besides, that “no one was interested here in a highly sophisticated program which required access to a big computer.”  Instead, manufacturers focused upon less expensive and less demanding programming methods, and designed their cheaper machines accordingly.  Not surprisingly, with domestic machine tool builders tied up with military and aerospace industry orders and specifications, foreign manufacturers were able to gain a significant foothold in the US commercial market.  Between 1960 and 1975, US imports of machine tools increased 300 percent.  By 1978, the US had become a net importer of machine tools; Japanese machines accounted for one-third of these imports and West German machines accounted for one-fifth (222).

Here’s something else to ponder: how much did the dominance of Japanese and West German firms in the machine tool industry affect the decline of American manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, and the subsequent collapse of industrial communities across the Midwest?  Perhaps not much, given that factories should have still had access to the higher production rates of foreign machines, but this still demonstrates how the dominance of military interests in a critical field of technology in fact stifled the development of better, general-purpose systems.


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2 thoughts on “Machine tool automation and economic distortion from the military-industrial complex

  1. peteybee September 15, 2016 at 4:38 pm Reply

    “how much did the dominance of Japanese and West German firms in the machine tool industry affect the decline of American manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s”?

    My impression is not that much. Manufacturing is an operations business – you can import your tools and still do the work domestically. In fact some of today’s most successful US manufacturing businesses do just that. I was recently at a very decent sized domestic manufacturer, and they generally run imported machines (though the automation control systems are domestic, interestingly). The thing is, this business, very typical of the US way, is deathly afraid of direct labor. They specifically design their operations so that their staff know as little as possible about what they are doing. As an engineer trying to work with them this is quite annoying — it means you have to not just idiot-proof everything, but also you must presume a zero education level from the operators and more importantly the on-site support staff of industrial equipment you put together. As a corporate strategy, they make every effort NOT to develop internal technical expertise. I think this comes from some kind of very old-fashioned labor relations philosophy. Labor relations have an adversarial component naturally, but in the US it is taken to an extra level. This has all sorts of weird results, like outsourcing temps all the time, leading to having a more or less unskilled worker on the books for $110/hour, of which they take home maybe $14-$18. All sorts of ass-backwardsness. It has a lot more to do with corporate dysfunction and operations philosophy, than tech choices, IMO. Also the imported automation tech is just better, even today, and often for less money. The domestic firms tend to milk their locked-in markets and competition-free markets (defense related). In this sense the article is correct.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Arjun September 16, 2016 at 3:33 pm Reply

      Yeah, one of the main arguments of “Forces of Production” is that N/C systems were chosen by management precisely because of its quality of being able to deskill workers on the shop floor, and increase management control over the production process. The real problem of R/P was that it still relied on the older, skilled class of machinists and operators, instead of allowing for the creation of a lower-skilled (and lower-waged) class of operators to displace them. So yes, you’re absolutely correct in that all of this is tied with the legacy of the intense class struggles in the factories and the shops during the 1940s-1960s.


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