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Learning to Prosper in a Factory Town

Greenville, South Carolina, has bet its future on high-tech manufacturing. Who wins and who loses in this increasingly automated economy?
October 18, 2016

In the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in a corner of South Carolina sits a town that should be economically dead. For decades, Greenville was the heart of the state’s textile industry—and its economic engine. First attracted by the area’s fast-moving rivers as a way to power looms, textile manufacturers employed tens of thousands of people here. Beginning in the 1970s, however, facing competition from lower-cost manufacturing regions like Mexico and Southeast Asia, these companies began to struggle. Over the next decades, many factories closed. Others moved production overseas. In 1990, 48,000 people still worked in textile manufacturing in the Greenville area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today fewer than 6,000 do.

Yet Greenville is booming. Visit its pretty downtown and you will find runners pushing jogging strollers and tourists snapping shots from the pedestrian bridge across the Reedy River in Falls Park. On Main Street you can eat at nationally recognized restaurants. A flock of construction cranes spend the days erecting pricey new condominiums. In recent years, the city and its surrounding counties have benefited from large increases in tax revenue and improved funding for local schools.

An aerial view of the BMW plant in Greer, South Carolina. Already producing more cars than any other BMW factory, it is now adding a new body shop.

While Charlotte, North Carolina, a 90-minute drive to the northeast, bet on financial services as the centerpiece of its economy, and other cities have tried to cultivate software hubs or tourism, Greenville has remained focused on manufacturing. Major global manufacturers with outposts here include BMW, ABB, Michelin, Bosch, and General Electric’s power division. As local factories have adopted increasingly computerized and automated techniques, the region has evolved into one of the country’s leading centers of advanced manufacturing.

The payoff for Greenville has been a strong economy by many conventional measurements. Though it sank with the rest of the country during the recession, it has bounced back since. Unemployment today is below the national rate at 4.7 percent, and median household income and property values have risen in recent years. Between 2010 and 2014, $1.5 billion was invested in businesses in the county, which added 8,947 new jobs. New businesses are being created here faster than anywhere else in the southeastern U.S., according to data tracked by the South Carolina Department of Commerce.

A family enjoys the Upper South Carolina State Fair at the NASCAR Greenville Pickens ­Speedway.

But there is a downside to this transformation of Greenville’s economy. Increasingly, these modern factories are dominated by machines, employing far fewer people than textiles once did. For those workers still on the factory floor, jobs are changing too, requiring new skills. Those without such training are being left behind.

A family at Falls Park in Greenville.

In 2004, the Greenville area’s per capita income was 83 percent of the U.S. average. Today it’s fallen to 80 percent of the national average. The number of people collecting food stamps has doubled over the past decade. Even in this boom, 21.5 percent of children in Greenville live in poverty—and the county has traditionally been one of the toughest places in the country for a child to climb out of poverty, according to research led by academics at Stanford and Harvard. That research did not draw specific conclusions about what has created this problem in Greenville, but if trends seen across the country also apply here, its origins likely lie in a lack of opportunity caused by factors such as higher rates of poverty, economic segregation, poor housing conditions, and crime.

In some ways Greenville exemplifies the future for communities built around advanced manufacturing. The changes in factories and factory work under way in manufacturing centers across the U.S. and Europe, and even beginning to accelerate in once low-cost manufacturing meccas such as China, are boosting local economies, but they’re also demanding that workers make the transition to jobs that require far more computer and technical skills. In an election year in which economic dissatisfaction, particularly in traditionally blue-collar cities, has been a dominant theme, Greenville illuminates what can be expected—and what can’t—from a factory-focused economy in a digital, automated age.

New skills

When politicians refer to manufacturing as a source of numerous jobs, they’re talking more about what manufacturing once was than what it is today. Modern manufacturing is a story of increasing output but slowing employment growth. That’s because investment in automation and software has doubled the output per U.S. manufacturing worker over the past two decades. During that period, overall manufacturing output grew by 40 percent, despite a nearly 30 percent decline in the number of manufacturing jobs.

"There's some things that might need that human touch."

Computerization and modern production have created new types of factory jobs, many of which pay more than the old ones. They just haven’t created as many of them. As a result, competition for the new jobs can be intense. And just as Greenville has had to adapt to a different type of manufacturing, its people have had to adjust to a new type of factory work.

When Shauntae Stewart decided to go back to work after 12 years at home with her children, her first job was working as a contractor at the BMW plant, inspecting parts from suppliers as they were about to be installed on the assembly line. The work paid $9 an hour.

It wasn’t long before Stewart quit to join a program, sponsored by a group called Greenville Works, that pays for workers’ training in skills needed by local manufacturers. She learned to operate a machine that makes parts based on computer instructions. Now she earns $24 an hour at Baldor Electric, a division of ABB that makes electric motors, where she spends her days operating a lathe and a grinder, reading the blueprints for the parts and checking that the machine is making them to the proper specifications.

Stewart grew up in Greenville. Her aunt used to work in the textile mills. Now she’s become a kind of advanced-manufacturing evangelist. “I see a waitress at the Waffle House who doesn’t look satisfied, or someone at the gas station. I give them my name and number. I tell them you don’t have to stay here in this dead-end job,” she says.

But making that transition can be difficult. When the economy began to improve following the recession of 2007 to 2009, many people who had worked in manufacturing and lost their jobs had trouble getting back into factory work. They either lacked the requisite credentials or were not familiar with the newer manufacturing technology, explains Amanda Warren, a counselor who works on employment readiness at United Ministries, a Greenville nonprofit. Those who were hired were most likely to get their jobs through contractors, as temporary workers who could more easily be added or let go.

Assembling cars at BMW’s factory in Greer, South Carolina.

The stark reality is that the arithmetic is not favorable to people who might once have worked in manufacturing as a way to a middle-class life. Whereas the textile mills of earlier days had a seemingly endless appetite for workers, today many are left out of the factory boom and must scrape by on low-paying service jobs.

“Some workers will be displaced. Some people will have to be retrained, even in the best of cases,” says Marco Annunziata, chief economist for General Electric, which has both a large gas-turbine factory and a new advanced-manufacturing research center in Greenville. The changes are inevitable, says Annunziata, because “the [business] incentives are just overwhelming” to take better advantage of digital technologies. Asked how communities like Greenville will manage this evolution, he says, “I am worried and optimistic at the same time.” 

It’s not just that people need certain technical skills to work in these new factories. They must also have softer skills, like the ability to solve problems and work in teams. Three years ago Solvay, a Belgian chemicals and materials manufacturer, decided to hire 100 new people for its plant in Greenville, which made carbon fibers in growing demand from customers in the aerospace industry. It made the ability to work collaboratively a key focus of the interviewing process. “We are looking for not just mechanical and industrial skills but also the ability to look beyond what’s right in front of you,” says Kelly Kosek, the human resources manager at Solvay. “You don’t just punch a clock on your job and check out.”

Renda Fant was one of those hired by Solvay, in October 2013. Fant had worked for 17 years for a local supermarket chain before it moved its headquarters to Florida. Today she spends her shifts on a team of five people testing the quality and physical properties of the carbon fibers made in the plant. It took her a year to feel expert in the 50 different tests she performs, and she still hasn’t gotten used to the swing-shift schedule, but Fant is making $28 an hour, almost twice what she earned at the supermarket. And she says learning the process at Solvay, something that at first seemed like mastering a foreign language, “fills up your self-esteem.”

99 percent robotic

With more than 8,000 workers at its factory in Greer, South Carolina, a Greenville suburb near the airport, BMW is one of the larger local employers. It also uses a lot of robots. A day spent in the factory shows the company striking a balance between automation and human skill, while constantly searching for ways technology can improve the production process.

"I am worried and optimistic at the same time."

Since setting up shop in South Carolina, where the company established its first full factory outside of Germany in 1994, BMW has invested $7.4 billion in the facility. Much of that has gone to increase its use of automation, starting with the 1,400 robots in the factory’s body shop. The factory makes 1,400 cars a day, almost one every minute. It produces the company’s popular X series sport-utility vehicles and is now the largest BMW plant in the world.

Two decades ago, when this plant opened, the body shop was full of human welders soldering together the framing of the car. Today it’s a dimly lit place where large robotic arms, switching on and off without human assistance, easily lift heavy car bodies of steel and aluminum like giant orange storks. When the plant opened, robots did 30 percent of the work in the body shop. Now they do 99 percent of it. The few people you see in the shop are mainly delivering components the robots need and checking banks of computer monitors that track the machines’ work.

More than 100 robotic arms spray-paint the car bodies in the BMW paint shops, alternating from one color to the next. The 12-hour process of painting each car is monitored by a computerized tracking system. There are five coats of paint, the combined layers as thick as five human hairs.

By contrast, the plant’s assembly line is full of people. This is where the painted shell gets its engine, wiring, interior, and wheels to become a recognizable car. Here people surround the car, sometimes working next to it, other times beneath it—assembling the power train, installing the fuel tank and fuel lines, placing seats and carpeting, and finally testing the vehicle. These tasks require a level of dexterity and flexibility that robots have not yet mastered.

The cars made in Greer are highly customized: all of the 400,904 vehicles made here last year were manufactured  to exact customer specifications. With all those variations, there’s a certain amount of human assessment required. All along the line, workers and supervisors peer at cars from different angles, running their hands over them, judging whether they look and feel right.

Humans have a feel, an instinct, that it’s hard to imagine replicating in a robot at a cost that makes sense, says Gadrian Zayas, a manager of BMW’s worker training programs: “There’s some things that might need that human touch.”

"Some workers will be displaced. Some people will have to be retrained, even in the best of cases."

In a few spots along the line, robots and humans work side by side. When the doors are assembled, they make one stop at a small robot that rolls foil along the interior of the door, making a watertight seal. It’s a repetitive task that requires enough force and work at strange angles to cause thumb and wrist injuries and other ergonomic problems in the people who used to do it. Unlike the orange giants in the body shop, which must work inside locked cages to protect human workers nearby, these robots can sense and respond to the presence of a person, stopping before they come into contact.

Made by Universal Robots, a Denmark-based manufacturer of collaborative robots, the machines are flexible and can be reprogrammed quite easily to do different things. Now BMW is testing ways they can work more collaboratively with people, including handing a tool to workers when they ask for it.

Other technologies being tested on the floor include an autonomous vehicle that could replace a forklift, and an exoskeleton vest that helps workers keep their arms above their head when drilling screws into the bottom of a car. “We are not replacing people,” says Richard Morris, vice president of project integration at the factory. “We are using the automation to help them.”

Worker at the GE gas turbine facility in Greenville.

Although it’s easy to imagine a future in which at least some of the work done by humans on the assembly line today is done by robots, manufacturing plants like the BMW factory will still need thousands of workers. And for a city like Greenville, preparing people for those rapidly changing jobs is both a challenge and an opportunity.

In September, Greenville Technical College opened a glass-and-steel building with soaring ceilings and hard concrete floors, its main classrooms populated with computerized machinery: 3-D printers, computer-driven machining tools, robotic arms. Community college students, many studying for new degrees that combine mechanics and electronics, collaborate with engineering students from nearby Clemson University to study a type of manufacturing where design and execution are closely linked.

It’s a dazzlingly different vision from the repetitive manufacturing lines of the past—and for Greenville County, which borrowed $25 million to build the facility, it’s a big bet on a new type of factory work.

“Manufacturing has changed,” says Keith Miller, president of Greenville Tech. “Students need to be more flexible. And we needed a different approach.”

For communities like Greenville that have hitched their economic prospects to advanced manufacturing, automation and computerization will continue to transform both their factories and the work done within them. The only option is to adapt.

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