In response to COVID-19 and the challenges faced by industries nationwide, industrial automation has quickly become more widespread than ever before. Advances in AI, robotics and technical machine learning is steering us into a new age in automation. And at a time when productivity and the economy is in need of a massive boost, automation is almost certainly the answer.
More than any other sector, manufacturing will be impacted the most. But job losses should not be feared.
The new age of automation
By definition, industrial automation is the use of control systems - such as computers or robots, and alongside information technologies it is used to handle a variety of processes.
It is projected that by 2025, 10-15% of jobs in manufacturing, transportation and storage, wholesale and retail trade will have high potential for automation. And by 2035, the range of jobs with high automation potential will be closer to 35-50% for those sectors.
Despite humans still being vitally involved in the manufacturing process, we inherently possess a range of counterproductive traits such as:
• Inputting incorrect data or instruction
• Inconsistency in work
• Being unwell and absent
• Becoming bored with repetitive tasks
• Having feelings and emotions that alter the ability to perform
The benefits of industrial automation
• Reduced operating costs - Industrial automation eliminates human operator costs such as wages, paid leave and holidays. In addition, the move toward automated processes doesn’t require additional employee benefits such as bonuses and pension. In essence, although industrial automation may come with a high initial cost, ultimately it saves on monthly costs associated with workers, leading to substantial cost savings for companies. According to McKinsey, in the US, 51% of activities could be replaced by automation – that’s almost $2.7 trillion in wages.
• Increased productivity - Despite many companies hiring hundreds of production workers and implementing shift patterns to maximise productivity, their manufacturing plants still need to close for maintenance and holidays. Industrial automation allows companies to run their manufacturing plants 24/7, providing a significant improvement in a company’s productivity.
• Higher quality of goods - Industrial automation almost entirely abolishes the risk of human error. Machinery and robots don’t suffer with fatigue or lack of motivation – the results being that products are manufactured with uniform quality.
• Unlimited flexibility - Whereas adding new tasks to assembly lines requires training for human operators, robots can be programmed to adapt to any task indefinitely, making the manufacturing process far more flexible.
• Information accuracy - You can collect key production information with improved data accuracy and reduce data collection costs - making it easier to reduce waste and improve processes.
• Increased health and safety - By deploying robots to handle hazardous conditions, you reduce any potential risks to employees and increase safety levels within manufacturing plants.
• Increasing human productivity - The most important benefit of replacing the production line work with robots, is that employees are free to retrain and skill-up into more substantial and engaging work. For example, as a quality control manager or a role in logistics.
The negatives of industrial automation • Worker displacement - This is the main disadvantage of industrial automation. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean widespread redundancy of staff. Industrial automations isn’t a case of humans versus machines. It’s the two working together to achieve a goal.
• High initial cost - The high expenditure required to invest in automation may prove challenging given the current financial climate. An automated system in industry can cost millions of pounds to design, fabricate and install.
• Cost of maintenance - There will be a higher level of maintenance necessary than that of a manually operated machine. The more high-tech your production line, the more components that could cause issues and therefore more expense and time fixing the issues.
Next steps in moving forward with industrial automation
Whilst the initial costs may be substantial, it’s important to recognise the overall benefits of automating the production line, how it will benefit many and keep manufacturing plants operating for years to come.
It is also vital to involve the human workforce in the transition and keep them involved when making changes. Employees will always be needed to keep any organisation working to its maximum potential.
“Impactful and productive automation is not only about new technologies, it's about people.
Many wrongly assume that a move to automation is wholly about technology. The improvement of business practices and have failed to consider how their workforce will be impacted as a result of automation. Understanding the process will serve to highlight the skills that are uniquely provided by workers.
Employees will need to ensure new technologies are rolled-out and managed in an efficient way. And in addition, business owners will need to ensure that the implementation is done in such a way that workers’ perception of automation is clear – it’s an asset and not a rival.
Industrial automation is a tool to help workers become even more efficient, not a replacement of their invaluable skills.”
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