The last two hundred years of our history tells the story of industry and mass production. What started with the introduction of the steam loom to textile mills in the north of England has become the defining innovation of our civilization - industrial mass production.

In the last five or six decades the shop floor has changed dramatically. From the soot and grime and constant noise of the Industrial Revolution, we've moved to high-technology, industrial robots, and computer controlled production lines. Things have become cleaner, safer, and more efficient. But the lessons of history remain the same - regardless of technology, it's the workers who count, not the machinery. The nature of industrial work has changed, however. The old distinctions between "high" and "low" technology no longer exist. Most factories - regardless of what they produce - are computerized and highly automated, and thus need skilled workers with the kind of skills possessed by technicians and technologists.

Although the human element remains crucial to the process, industrial lathes, milling machines, and die forges in modern-day plants and factories turn out mass-produced goods with a speed and precision that would be unachievable by even the steadiest and most adept human hands.

But it doesn't stop there. In the 1980s, computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing (CAD/CAM), became standard technologies in manufacturing industries, computerizing the manufacturing process from conception to packaging. CAD/CAM's greatest impact has been in the automotive and aerospace industries where complex virtual models of cars and airplanes are completely designed by computer and then transformed into the real thing.

For example, Bombardier Aerospace's Global Express long-range business jet didn't exist outside of the memory circuits of a supercomputer until the first production model rolled off the company's Montreal assembly line in 1998. The jet's prototype was virtual - it was entirely digitally designed and tested.

This plane existed first as a digital prototype, where each part - from the wingtips to the bolts that hold down the passenger seats - was precisely designed to near-perfection before any actual building occurred. That information was transmitted to Bombardier's computerized plants for manufacturing and assembly. All of the parts fit together perfectly, exactly as they were designed.

Digital technology has led directly to the exciting new principle of "boutique production," an area where Canadian industry leads the world. Taking an industrial design from paper to prototype once took weeks or months and the labour of a half-dozen skilled craftspeople. Canadian companies can now take CAD-produced industrial designs and turn out industrial prototypes, models, and even limited production runs in 24 hours or less. Highly skilled technicians and technologists are the key to this process, and must remain so to ensure Canada's continuing industrial competitiveness in the 21st century.

Nevertheless, even the work of assembling parts and driving rivets has become mechanized, computerized, and roboticized. Look down the line of the most modern high-tech factories today and you'll see rows of robots tirelessly repeating the most mundane industrial tasks.

None of this means that the human industrial worker has become obsolete - in fact, far from it. Industrial technology on the brink of the 21st century is far more complex than the machines that drove the industrial revolution in the nineteenth century. Today's technicians and technologists need far more knowledge and expertise in order to operate the manufacturing tools found in modern plants and factories.

Industrial workers today might be technicians, technologists, computer operators, or machinists. Instruments have to be calibrated, computer-aided manufacturing machines need to be programmed and maintained, and the networks carrying instructions to the tireless robotic production lines must be kept running. Most importantly, it takes human ingenuity and intelligence to send those instructions in the first place, and to ensure that they are properly carried out. Computer-aided manufacturing would be impossible without human input in management, planning, and quality control.

The conventional wisdom once held that Canada was moving from a manufacturing to a service and information based economy and that consequently, manufacturing jobs would migrate to warmer and cheaper climes like Mexico and Asia. The fact is, that hasn't happened.

Between 1992 and 1997, Canadian manufacturing has taken off. Transportation equipment industries - including the aerospace and automotive industries - grew 44 percent in that period to account for almost $20 billion of Canada's gross domestic product. Even more dramatic was the machinery industry's 74 percent growth over the same period.

For all of the machines, computers, and robots crowding factory floors, the demand for skilled industrial workers continues to grow. Manufacturing industries recovered well from the economic hard times of the 1980s, and their employment levels have been on the increase in the past few years. After two centuries of mass production, industrial and technological revolutions have transformed factories from dark and sooty mills of toil to clean and efficient automated assembly lines. And yet, one constant has remained - it is impossible to separate the skilled worker from his or her work or production tools.