Improving the Quality of Life Through Technology
IN A RECENT HARRIS POLL, AMERICAN manufacturing executives were asked which countries would pose the most serious competitive threat to American manufacturing over the next 5 years and in the year 2000 (Business Week, January 12, 1987). Sixty-nine percent of the executives answered that emerging countries such as Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan would be America’s chief competitors in the manufacturing sector over the next 5 years, and 76 percent responded that those countries would pose a threat to U.S. manufacturing in the year 2000. Only 29 percent of those who responded said that Japan would be a serious competitor over the next 5 years, and only 11 percent cited Japan for the year 2000.
These findings illustrate an interesting trend. In the past, a nation’s competitive power was determined by its geographical size and population. Beginning in the eighteenth century, however, the industrial revolution changed the balance of power among nations, and today even a small nation can achieve affluence and economic strength through its industrial achievement.
In Southeast Asia, there are major differences between nations even though they are located in the same geographical region and are surrounded by similar natural conditions. Singapore has a high wage rate, second only to Japan in Asia, yet it is a tiny island comparable in size to Manhattan and has a population of 2.7 million people. It is also located in a tropical zone with few natural resources.
On the other hand, the people of other nations in Asia are still living at a primitive level. When we look carefully at statistical data on the status of each nation, we see the correlation between a country’s economic standing and various indicators of the quality of life. High economic figures are indicative of the advanced state of industrialization of each nation.
COPING WITH CHANGE THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
Just before the oil crisis of 1974, The Limits to Growth, a controversial report prepared for the Club of Rome, projected a very pessimistic scenario for the future of the global economy and industrialized nations in particular (Meadows et al., 1972). Given the atmosphere at that time—which included a general economic slowdown and the antipollution and antitechnology movement—the report had an enormous impact. It supported the theory, and more importantly the prevailing mood, that the global economy was headed for a period of decline. These influences contributed to a certain pessimism in many industrialized countries.
However, nations have demonstrated that they can cope with such conditions through the creativity of human beings. Faced with the oil crisis, Japan introduced innovative energy-saving technology into the steel industry, and today not a drop of oil is used in that sector. Japan has achieved an increase in its gross national product (GNP) of 2.7 times that at the time of the first oil crisis, while oil consumption has decreased to 80 percent of that in 1974.
Almost every industrialized nation instituted similar energy-saving measures. These efforts to eliminate energy losses in factories, automobiles, and elsewhere were successful in overcoming the energy price hikes. As a result of the new technology, decreased oil consumption has even forced oil producers to cut the price of oil.
Pollution in the industrialized areas of Japan, a by-product of the push for high economic growth, was another major problem in the 1970s. However, after a radical antiindustrialization movement became active, the Japanese government issued numerous antipollution laws. The strictest automobile emission regulations in the world were instituted in Japan in 1975, and cars that did not meet the emissions control specifications could not be sold in Japan. Such regulations were applied not only to automobiles but also in every factory. Consequently, the engineers working in the regulated sectors made great efforts to develop technologies within the framework of the new constraints.
As a result of those efforts, the air and water of Japan today have become clean again. It is said that half the budget to construct new ironworks plants was spent on energy-saving and antipollution devices. The average expenditure of the energy-saving/antipollution industry, which did not exist in Japan before the 1970s, is estimated to be $15 billion per year. Recently, these energy-saving and antipollution technologies have begun to be used all over the world, especially in Western Europe to eliminate pollution caused by acid rain.
INCREASING THE ECONOMIC PIE THROUGH TECHNOLOGY
The importance of a strong manufacturing base and the economic advantages of industrialization are well illustrated by Japan. Japan is one of the
world’s most crowded countries. With 2.7 percent of the world’s population yet only 0.3 percent of the land area, Japan has few natural resources and is located on the fringe of the Asian continent, which is far from the world’s main markets. Yet in 1986, Japan achieved a GNP of $2.3 trillion, 11 percent of the world’s economic activity. The locomotive force of the Japanese economy is clear. It is technology. Many attempts to understand the basis of Japan’s success, however, are marked by misconceptions. Some commentators say Japan has merely followed in the path of Western Europe and the United States or imitated ideas from developed nations and in this way moved ahead in manufacturing and other technologies. Some of these statements may be true, but my experience in the Japanese manufacturing sector since World War II has provided an insight into two key factors of Japan’s success. The first factor is the way Japanese manufacturers develop new products through innovative technology. The second factor is the way the Japanese cope with and overcome problems that occur on the manufacturing shop floor.
In October 1985, I attended a conference in Toulouse, France, on advanced technology. During the conference, I wondered whether many Western Europeans understood the real meaning of advanced technology. When new technologies appear in the world, Western Europeans tend to apply them in complicated ways such as in space technology or missiles. Since these are difficult fields they seldom apply the advanced technologies in immediately practical ways. On the other hand, the Japanese make use of new technologies in whatever form seems to be easily applicable at the time.
Consider carbon fiber, for example. It is a highly innovative new material, lighter than aluminum and stronger than steel. Japanese manufacturers first used it for the shaft of golf clubs. Next they used it for fishing rods. And because they were using these new materials for simple products, even if some minor defects occurred, serious problems were avoided. After they perfected these production techniques for carbon fiber, Japanese companies used carbon fiber in more complex applications.
A more recent example is that of shape-memory alloy. In Japan, manufacturers started using this alloy in every possible field and explored many different product areas—such as air conditioners, eyeglass frames, and coffee makers. Consequently, Japan produces more of this alloy than any other country, 90 percent of the world total.
The most important strategy for using innovative technology is discovering and developing a new, profitable market. Technology should not stay at the idea stage; it should be converted into marketable products. Japanese firms are successful at commercializing new technologies because they select technologies with ready applications and move quickly in developing and manufacturing the product. A driving force in maintaining this commercialization strategy is severe competition among Japanese firms.
Another point is the difference in assumptions between Western European and Japanese engineers. If I talk with Western European engineers, their discussions tend to be “digital.” They always think in terms of black or white and yes or no. This Cartesian way of thinking was quite effective in the natural sciences, where greater simplification is necessary to organize ambiguous data. However, production activity is not that simple.
Basically, manufacturing is a battle against thousands of different possible breakdowns and errors: mistakes in planning schedules, incorrect design, accidental mixture of materials, and so forth. Moreover, machines do not always work uniformly, and factory workers occasionally make mistakes. If these errors accumulate, the result will be a pile of defective goods. The lesson here is that it is easy to fail if you are not aware of all the “gray areas” of production.
We cannot predict where and how such errors will occur, however. Everyone in the factory must cooperate, looking for potential problems and taking care of them in order to prevent future problems. Japan’s strategy for dealing with these issues is the total quality control (TQC) system.
Every nation has the potential for achieving a more affluent society by introducing technology and developing added value in manufactured goods. India succeeded in supplying food for its population, and projections are that India will even export food in the near future. On the other hand, even today 60 percent of the world’s population subsists at a starvation level. Therefore, there should be cooperation and understanding among nations concerning the use of technology as a tool for achieving an improved standard of living for all people. Unfortunately, the fruits of technology are often treated too politically to be used to upgrade the quality of human life. Nations should strive to introduce technology for the purpose of improving tomorrow’s quality of life.
Business Week. January 12, 1987. BW/Harris executive poll: Manufacturing’s rise depends on the dollar, p. 68.
Meadows, D.H., D.L.Meadows, J.Randers, and W.W.Behrens III. 1972. The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.