A Letter to the Next Generation

By Matt LaWell

My dear Margot,

You can’t walk or read yet. You still wake up some time most nights when the sky is dark. You are so, so far from figuring out what you really want out of this life. Whatever you do want, it almost certainly won’t be what I want, or what your Mom wants, or what your Grandpa wants. And you almost certainly won’t listen to any of us, just like I didn’t listen to your Grandpa. I promise this is not unique.

Let me tell you about your Grandpa for a minute. Your Grandpa, my Dad, great guy, is an early Baby Boomer, born nine months and change after Japanese foreign minister Mamoru Shigemitsu signed the Declaration of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. He played with cap guns and model trains during his 1950s childhood. He was in middle school before he received his first real tech: a transistor radio.

I’m an early Millennial, born right along with our modern Internet thanks to the migration of the ARPANET to TCP/IP. I played with cap guns and action figures during my 1980s childhood. I was in kindergarten when I received my first real tech: a Nintendo Entertainment System.

You are … well, you celebrated your first birthday not long ago, so I have no idea what we’ll call your generation. I have no idea what you’ll play with during your 2010s childhood, though the sweet smoke of cap guns will most likely never waft over our back yard. But I do know when you received your first real tech: two months before you were born. It’s a Fisher-Price tablet that spits out letters and words and sounds. Seems to work, too. Your first real word — other than dadamama and hi — was apple.

Tech will only spread into your life more, of course. I was part of the last generation to grow up without a connection in every corner. You’ll grow up in a world — consumer and industrial — where just about everything is a Thing. I imagine that you’ll use touchscreens like your Grandpa and I used pencils and paper. I imagine that you’ll learn how to code long before you learn how to drive — or at least how to operate a Level 5 autonomous car.

I imagine, too, that you’ll dive into business and industry more than I did. Why wouldn’t you? From FIRST LEGO Leagues for elementary schoolers all the way up to global installations of cloud, robots, 3D printing, the Industrial Internet, on and on, there has never been a more exciting and important time to work with your hands and your mind — and there has never been a more exciting and important time to dive into manufacturing.

Let’s start with all that tech.

Just during the couple months since you reverse engineered your birthday cake, I’ve traveled to Silicon Valley, to Boston, to Miami, to talk with companies about how your life will be different than mine. Some of them are working with additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, to manufacture smaller, stronger parts to build just about everything. The wonder of additive manufacturing is that if you can dream it, you can print it. Airplane parts, car parts — and sometimes, whole cars — homes, even. Internal organs. Running shoes. Whatever you want.

“For lots and lots of years, we had to explain what 3D printing was and why people should care.” This is Chuck Hull speaking. He invented one kind of 3D printing back when I was your age. “Then everybody knew what it was, and we went through this hype period.

“We’re through that hype, and now, I think, people have realistic expectations and knowledge about where it all is.”

Robots are pretty cool, too. You’ll probably have a robot at home soon, because one of your friends will have one, and you’ll want one, and I’ll have no real way to say no to you. That robot will whirr around the house, maybe keep you company or clean up a little. It will be nothing like an industrial robot, which can be programmed to help you do things you physically cannot do, like lift hundreds or even thousands of pounds.

You’ll have some other connected devices, too — probably whatever Amazon, Google or Fitbit are selling a decade from now. The kinds of connected devices used in factories are similar, but they’re a part of something bigger. Your home devices will make your life simpler and maybe better. Those industrial devices will play a part in the supply chain of making many lives better.

What else is out there? Whatever is now, will be updated, replaced, outdated long before you ever use any of it. Augmented reality can be used to play video games. It can also be used to help train workers, or to help them move and work more efficiently. Machine learning, among plenty of other uses, can run more simulations in a minute than you could calculate in a lifetime. Exoskeletons can be used to give paraplegics and quadriplegics a renewed connection to the world, and they can give folks on the factory floor more strength.

According to the most recent State of Manufacturing report from Plex Systems, four of every five manufacturing companies say that tech is important to their own innovation.

I know this means nothing to you right now. It will soon.

You have to find something that makes you happy — “something that inspires you,” according to George Blankenship, who helped bring Apple and Tesla to the masses. Maybe you’ll wind up working in a classroom as a teacher, or in a hospital as a nurse or a surgeon or, like one of your Grandmas, a boss. Maybe you’ll work in a studio, behind the camera as a producer or director, or in front of the camera as the talent.

Or maybe you’ll work in a factory. Almost none of them is dark and dirty anymore. Almost all of them have some tech out on the floor. You could work on the line, or as a supervisor. You could work on the office side as an engineer, designing and making things. If you have enough drive, you could run the whole show, or even start your own business. According to that same State of Manufacturing report from Plex, almost half of manufacturers say that data analysis — not manual labor — is the most important skill for the next generation of employees.

Let’s talk about money for just a minute, too. If you do work in manufacturing, the money is good. The most recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics say the median American household income is about $59,000. The average annual earnings of a single employee in the manufacturing sector, meanwhile, is about $56,300. That’s the average. You can bring home a lot more with the right skills.

None of this is easy, of course. You need to love science and math. You need to develop some big ideas, and you need to have the drive to want to see them become reality. You need to want to help people — in this case, by selling them products that make their lives better, their jobs easier, their every day more rewarding.

This industry is based on capitalism and altruism.

I talked with Bernard Charles the other day. He’s the CEO of Dassault Systèmes, a French company that focuses on 3D software and design. He’s also a Grandpa six times over.

“Do you know why grandparents and grandkids really love each other?” he asked. “Because they have a common enemy. Let’s work for them.”

Every day — from me, from your Mom, from your grandparents, from your teachers … and from the manufacturing sector — is about working for you and your generation. We want to give you a better world. Manufacturing never ends. We will always make things.

Maybe soon you’ll make things, too.

Love,

Dad

Mike Rowe