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What is the future of automation in manufacturing?

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Some three decades ago, when American automakers felt threatened by Japanese competition, they had a vision of beating their rivals with "lights out" manufacturing - highly automated factories with robots left to build cars on their own. 

But manufacturing will always need people.

When lights-out automation was still a dream, it was imagined that work weeks would be reduced and people would have much more leisure time. 

But competitive globalisation had not been taken into account. Today, reduced headcount and increased leisure are not options; the remaining employees are working harder than ever.

As Yogi Berra said, "It's deja vu all over again." 

Many of the new production methods in the next manufacturing revolution will require fewer people working in factories, and some lights-out manufacturing is now possible.

Manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. Automated machines need people to design, program and service them. 

As manufacturing transforms into a high-tech workplace, the new generation of process and automation engineers and technicians will be completely different - they will have grown up with the Internet, smartphones and video games. 

Old-fashioned ideas about training and seniority will quickly become obsolete as the fast-growing skills shortage generates high demand for skilled engineers and technicians. Tech power will trump everything else.

Future workplaces - the equivalent of factories - will be bright and stimulating places where people enjoy working and jobs are challenging and rewarding. 

Knowledge workers don't need time cards, defined working hours or staff-sergeant supervisors.

Today's young people are smart, and even brash. They want to work; but unlike their parents, they don't want work to be their lives. If they can be attracted, they are the ones who will be the automation engineers and technicians of tomorrow.

Technology shifts

There will be some super high-tech factories that make smaller quantities of highly specialised products. But there will also be millions of small and medium-sized businesses that will benefit from new materials, cheaper robots and 3D printers that can economically produce a wide variety of products in small numbers.

For smaller companies, robots are generally too inflexible and require too much financial investment. But the next generation of robots will be cheaper and easier to set up, and will work with people rather than replace them. There will be proliferation of smarter software and an abundance of cloud-based services.

The continuing manufacturing drive will be to make more with less - pack more information and knowledge into less matter using less energy while making more effective products. 

Jobs will keep moving from manipulating matter to playing with information and ideas, as priorities continue to shift toward design, programming, finance, logistics, marketing, production and repairs, and into making sure that the continuously changing combination of human and automation investments performs optimally.

Manufacturers will demand several capabilities from future automation systems: productivity, meaning improved efficiency and reduced manufacturing costs; steady product improvement in smaller batches; optimum asset utilisation; integrated factory and information technology; production flexibility, making it easy to expand, with high redundancy, self-recovery and rapid reconfiguration; integrated control, safety, security and information systems; network standardisation; standards for products and systems interoperability; web-based software, data exchange and integration; robust wireless everywhere; self-diagnostics and predictive maintenance; and health, safety and environmental responsibility.

In my view, conventional deterministic control architectures will fade away and will steadily be replaced with distributed, robust, modular, adaptive, non-hierarchical, fault-tolerant autonomous control systems.

A report from the McKinsey Global Institute, Manufacturing the Future: The Next Era of Global Growth and Innovation, presents a clear view of how manufacturing contributes to the global economy today and how it will probably evolve over the coming decade. 

The report states that manufacturing is entering a dynamic new phase and will continue to grow globally. 

As a new global consumer class emerges in developing nations and innovations spark additional demand, global manufacturers will have substantial new opportunities. Innovative automation systems will be the core of future manufacturing growth.

[Jim Pinto is a US-based industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. His areas of interest are technology futures, marketing and business strategies for a fast-changing environment, and industrial automation with a slant towards technology trends.]

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