How Automation Is Changing Manufacturing as We Know It

Industrial automation certainly is a topic that divides opinion.

Some people welcome the advancement of robots and AI, and the increases they bring to productivity.

Others – perhaps rightly so – worry about intelligent machines making human workers redundant.

Automation in manufacturing is not a new phenomenon. In 1913, the Ford Motor Company introduced the world’s first moving assembly line.

Many were intrigued. Others were apprehensive. Some doubted it would even work.

The result? A car that took 12 hours to build was now finished in less than two.

Within 7 years, factory output had increased by over 500%. Employee wages had doubled, and the working hours were reduced. Employees were making more money and had more free time. Ford was hyper-efficient – and profits were soaring.

More than 100 years later, vehicle manufacturing still employs almost 2.5 million Americans. Automation has enhanced human productivity – but hasn’t replaced it.

Superhuman Efficiency

The goal of automation is to increase efficiency. To replace human labor with machines that are faster and more accurate.

You may have seen the viral video of the tomato sorting machine separating green tomatoes from red ones. This is a simple example of automation doing what a human can do – only much faster.

In the manufacturing of very small and complex components – automation is critical. In fact, without it, we would not have most of the technology that we take for granted.

Look at this example of automated die-bonding machine used in creating LEDs. Fast, efficient, and accurate – it’s hard to even imagine this work being done by human hands.

Or this example of the automated quality testing of PLCC LEDs. Without autonomy, production of these tiny surface mount LEDs would either be far slower, much more expensive – or both.

It also raises the important question: even if humans could do this job, would we still want to do it?

Increased Employee Safety

Driverless cars are already on track to reduce road deaths. In the same way, factory automation is improving human safety and eliminating accidents.

For a long time, factory work largely involved the lifting and moving of heavy objects. In many industries, intelligent machines have all but eliminated this.

As well as moving things around, robots are also taking over much of our dangerous work. Jobs with hazardous chemicals and bright lights such as welding can now be performed by machines – keeping humans out of harm’s way.

In eras gone by, factory and manufacturing jobs carried the inherent risk of serious injury or death. With machines taking over many of our dangerous tasks – the fear of losing a loved one at work has almost disappeared.

The Shift From Manual To Cognitive Work

As robots replace human labor, it’s understandable that many jobs are shifting from physical to technical work.

In fact, the demand for manual skills in manufacturing is dropping more than twice as fast as any other industry.

As machines become more intelligent, there’s a growing demand for technical, IT, and high-level cognitive skills in general. Mental ability is now more valuable than physical ability.

It’s clear that the demand for entry-level and repetitive labor jobs is shrinking. But as more machines enter the workspace, both productivity and volume improve. And with that, comes a sustained – or even increased – demand for human input.

A robot can easily replace the labor of five people. But who builds the robot? Who improves the software? Who monitors the operation? And who repairs it when it breaks down?

A factory was once populated almost entirely by repetitive manual workers. They’re now staffed by production supervisors, technicians, engineers, and electronics experts.

And these jobs – at least for now – are still very much in human hands.

Can There Be Too Much Automation?

Despite the obvious benefits of intelligent machines – it seems that there can still be too much of a good thing.

Perhaps the best example of this is Tesla Motors. After severe production delays of their Model 3 sedan, Elon Musk admitted that relying on automation was the problem:

“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. We had this crazy, complex network of conveyor belts, and it wasn’t working, so we got rid of that whole thing. Humans are underrated.”

Tesla re-introduced human workers into the process, which accelerated the production of its Model S and Model X vehicles. “…because a lot less of it was automated, we could scale up labor hours and achieve a high level of production.”

Even as automation improves and advances our manufacturing – humans are still playing a vital role in the process.

And as impressive as our machines are now and will be in the future – perhaps keeping the balance is the key to our success.

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