How a WWII-era Plan may Provide a Robotics, AI Blueprint for Manufacturing in the Heartland

John McElligott, founder and CEO of York Exponential, in front of a mural honoring the original York Plan. Source: York Exponential

March 21, 2019      

Most experts agree that revitalizing manufacturing in the U.S. will require some combination of automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics, but the blueprint to achieve this for many smaller and midsize manufacturers remains elusive.

Next week, industry leaders and officials from federal, state, and local government will gather in York, Pa., to discuss the impacts of AI, robotics, and technologies that will transform tomorrow’s workforce, especially in traditional “heartland” cities and towns. The Blueprint York event, produced by VentureBeat, will take place March 26-28, at The Strand Theater in York, a south-central Pennsylvania city that’s about 100 miles west of Philadelphia, and 26 miles south of the state’s capital, Harrisburg.

The Blueprint events were started by VentureBeat following the 2016 election to help discover areas of technology and economic development beyond the East and West coasts of the U.S. The first event was held in Reno, Nev., in 2018, with this year’s event scheduled for York.

Robotics Business Review recently talked with John McElligott, the founder CEO of York Exponential and one of the event’s main speakers. York Exponential provides fully designed, integrated robot solutions or robots-as-a-service for small and midsize manufacturers looking to get robots and humans working together. In addition to talking about the event, McElligott discussed the York Plan (the collaboration between manufacturers at the start of World War II), the York Plan 2.0 (how robotics and AI can help other cities and town become tech innovation centers), and why today’s superhero movies will likely inspire the next generation of tech leadership.

Origins of the original York Plan

Q: Tell us about York and its place in the world of manufacturing, and the original York Plan.

McElligott: We’re a very small community that has this industrial heritage that’s not even reinventing itself, but remembering what made it great. There’s a renaissance happening around manufacturing, robotics, AI, and that we should be the next place for them to come to.

Essentially, in 1940, York saved the world. And in York, we don’t even really remember it – there’s only one mention of it in a McDonald’s parking lot mural. In the spring of 1940, before the United States entered World War II, most of the nation wanted nothing to do with it – we’d become isolationist. But in York, the leaders realized that whether they wanted the war or not, it was coming, and we needed to be ready.

Manufacturing blueprint York Pennsylvania

Workers at the York Safe & Lock company prepare defense components during World War II. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-DIG-fsa-8e10915

There was a guy named Forry Laucks, the owner of York Safe & Lock, and after the depression he realized people aren’t going to need safes anymore. So he thought, I need to do something different with my business. He was one of the first guys in 1938 to see the war coming. Most of the people in town thought he was crazy. But he managed to convince a very small amount of manufacturers to start making defense components. He started going to Washington, D.C., on his own – the idea was that no one can build a tank, but we could all build a piece, and he started getting defense contracts.

So in 1940, when it became more apparent that something was happening, even though the rest of the nation wanted nothing to do with it, the leaders in York realized he was right. Four families, including his, were nominated from within the manufacturing community, to come up with a plan. They were given six months and three guiding principles. The first is that everything from now on is about facing this one challenge. It doesn’t matter what other people say, it doesn’t matter if they say it’s not our problem. The war’s coming, whether we want it or not, and we’re not ready and we need to get ready. The second was for the time being, they put aside all political differences and wholeheartedly supported the president and preparing the nation.

Floor waxer York Pennsylvania blueprint article

At the Floorola Products Inc., in York, Pa., machinery formerly used in the production of floor waxers was converted to the production of war essentials. Source: Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USE6-D-002458

York and the nation was just as divided back then as they are now. But the idea wasn’t that we were going to pretend to like each other, it was that you knew you didn’t like the guy next to you, but you had to work with them anyway to get this done. Then the third idea was with all grace, they’d seek advice and counsel for every member of society and remove everything that barred progress. So essentially, the wealthiest people sat down with the poorest, the owners of the factory sat down with the workers. Even kids, because they knew that a plan that didn’t include everyone would be an incomplete plan.

So after seven months and using these guiding principles, they came up with what would later be called the York Plan. If you look at it, it’s practical outcome is pretty much everything San Francisco has been doing for the last 10 years – it was crowd funding, crowd sourcing, people-built maker spaces, and a sharing economy that popped up around tools, because there weren’t enough tools. People that used to be competitors started to trade the downtime of all their equipment. Pretty soon the whole of York pivoted to defense, and in a matter of six months started to land all the contracts. The York Plan then spread throughout Pennsylvania – out of everything produced in World War II, one third of it came from Pennsylvania.

Q: How did it then move to the rest of the nation?

McElligott: When war was declared, the president didn’t know what to do, and sent out request for proposals, and the York Plan was adopted by default because it was the only one already working, and the whole nation adopted it. It spread through Rotary Clubs under the slogan, “Do what you can with what you have.” After the war, everybody kind of forgot about it and went back to their corners.

Tying in robotics and AI

Q: How does the current state of robotics, AI and manufacturing relate to the original York Plan?

McElligott: We’ve realized that robotics, artificial intelligence, and technology are being developed in other countries – the speed at which a lot of this is happening has put us at a disadvantage again. So we’ve been working to make York an epicenter for human and robot collaboration, and this idea of getting prepared for the fourth industrial revolution using the first York Plan is our blueprint. We’re focused on the York Plan 2.0 to make humans and machines more powerful working together.

Q: Based on those guiding principles from the original York Plan, do you think today’s world can work together, in light of the current political environment, as well as how much technology has changed since the 1930s and 1940s?

McElligott: I think it has to. The first three principles – they’re just as relevant now, if not more so, than they were then. It’s one of the reasons why we’re doing the event in York. People think robotics and AI is really far away. While a lot of the country may be thinking that it’s 20 years away, we’ve convinced the local community, and a lot of these manufacturers and educators, that it’s a lot closer than we think. So that first one has already been taking care of.

The second one, of being able to put your differences aside – the truth is we’re a small enough community that we actually sit down and talk about this. Half our downtown is Hispanic, and we have a large African-American population, but we also have a large white population. We are sitting down and talking through these issues as a community, and because of our size we can actually do it.

The third principle, of making sure everyone’s a part of it – every week we have kids walking to our facility – we’ve had congressmen, senators, even the governor. People from the White House are coming next week, all the way down to people who run the local nonprofits. We’ve done everything we can to make sure that everyone is exposed to the technology, and understands it. But we haven’t just focused on manufacturers. We’ve made sure the school students, our mayor, city councilors, county commissioners, are incredibly supportive. We really tried to embrace those three initial points of the preparation for the work plan in light of what’s coming. There’s definitely a big tipping point happening, with things happening in other countries and technology advancing very quickly.

Training robot mechanics

Q: In addition to working with the manufacturers, you’re working with creating a licensed college. Explain the route you’ve taken, instead of working with an existing university or college around robotics, like those in Pittsburgh, Boston, or Silicon Valley.

McElligott: We’re specifically focused on something that Pittsburgh and Boston are not. We did try and work with some local colleges, but the reality is that when we talked about robotics, the immediate thing they said is that they couldn’t do that because we don’t have a Ph.D. in robotics.

We’re the first of its kind, licensed by the state of Pennsylvania, with the goal of creating the first generation of robot mechanics. Solid, middle-class jobs, which we’ve started graduating people from the program.

York Exponential kids training robots blueprint article

In addition to working with manufacturers, York Exponential works with schools and has created a robotics mechanic college. Source: York Exponential

We’re not trying to create master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s, we need regular people. What we’re trying to do is rebuild the middle class around this technology. That seemed foreign to established education institutions because up until recently, robotics was seen as a specialty.

A good way to view this was like in the early days of computer programming – when you mentioned STEM, nobody thought of computer programming – it was almost always like an after-school program for the techie kids. Then we realized we needed lots of computer programmers, so computer programming was pushed to the center. Now, when you talk about robotics, we’re in the same cycle where schools think robotics is only for a few people, as an after-school program. When are we going to learn our lesson? The time to train people is not when we need them everywhere. So we saw that pattern and said if we have to, we’re going to do it ourselves. Hopefully if we do this right, York will be the epicenter of the first generation of blue-collar, good solid middle class jobs in robotics.

Q: Are you optimistic that this plan could be duplicated with other communities in the heartland that may have had a strong manufacturing base at some point in their past?

McElligott: I’m 1,000% sure. The first York Plan, there were people that were a part of this that didn’t even have a phone. The way they heard about it was through Rotary clubs, because the Rotary clubs were a part of these communities. It’s one of the reasons we focused on partnering with organizations like YMCAs. And I’ve spoken with Rotary clubs, and I’m about to speak with the CEO of Goodwill. As a tech startup, we realized that if we want to help communities across the United States, I need to be talking with the CEO of Goodwill in Kansas, not necessarily the president of Uber.

Q: What has changed with communities like York since the days of the original York Plan?

McElligott: I have a real passion for  York, and communities like York. When I first move here, all the storefronts were closed. There were no nobs. When I asked what happened, it became very clear. The first two generations, especially in manufacturers, were the ones who started the companies. So they were these visionaries and risk takers. But then at some point, and this is when things like mobile technologies and the Internet and computers, their kids all took over. It went from being risk takers to caretakers, which is a very different mindset. You see change as a risk, like you could lose everything. And we missed out – we didn’t embrace the Internet, we didn’t embrace computers. We missed out on a lot of opportunities, and I don’t want that to happen again.

The Avengers generation

Q: What is it about robotics that can resonate with the York community?

McElligott: It’s a physical technology, which is way easier for people to understand in a place like York. You can see it, feel it, touch it. That’s different than saying, “you’re going to become a computer programmer,” because that’s an invisible world. We think this is our chance to capitalize on the opportunities that we missed on the last round of technology. This just happens to be a technology we can use because we’re manufacturers.

York floor waxer blueprint article

The York Plan encouraged cooperation between all walks of life – rich, poor, men, women, children. In this photo, a secretary-treasurer at Floorola Products in York ” knows as much about drills and lathes as the oldest employee around the place.” Source: Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USE6-D-002457

Q: How can this plan inspire the younger generations?

McElligott: This is something that regular people can do very much like the first space race, when whole towns popped up around rocket technologies, and manufacturing of the shuttle. There’s no reason why robotics can’t be that same thing for this generation. This is the Avengers generation – everything is robotics, super powers, superheroes. This generation is primed to embrace this technology and do amazing things with it.

York Exponential blueprint kids

Could the ‘Avengers Generation’ drive the next wave of robotics innovation? Source: York Exponential

I am convinced that this is the superhero generation. They are primed and we say it all the time, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If there was ever a generation that I think would get it, it’s this one. I mean, Captain Marvel broke box office records. Every single time a new superhero movie opens, there’s no signs of stopping. This generation is prepped for something.

Q: As a futurist predicting that we need to organize a plan like York Plan 2.0 to get ready to face the challenge of something down the road (similar to World War II originally), do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist?

McElligott: I am an optimist, in that I believe amazing things are coming. I would say I’m a realist to understand that there may be some difficulty we have to go through to get to that. World War II was very similar, where a lot of new technologies came out of the war. While it was a terrible thing, it did prove a lot of things. We began to work together, women were able to do the jobs of men, etc.

But out of it, the United States became a manufacturing powerhouse. Amazing technologies were created, and the middle class was catapulted. I am an optimist that I believe in the people of the United States. I live in a town like York, I’ve traveled to towns like this. They’re good, hardworking people that all want the same thing. They want a good future for their family, and they’re willing to fight for it. I am convinced that while there may be some difficulty coming, the United States has risen to the challenge before, and I believe we’ll do it again.