Will machines take the place of people in factories? This is one of the questions most frequently asked about Smart Manufacturing. Why? Because for many years the prevalent belief has been that business competitiveness is primarily achieved by reducing the cost of labor. And robots have long been viewed as the solution to the problem of labor costs.
But if we now look at modern factories, they are very different from those of 20years ago. From an employment point of view, however, the total number of employees in factories today is not significantly different than it was two decades ago. Factory employment did not decrease as many futuristic forecasts had suggested. What changed was the distribution of personnel between various business roles.
Now, with the rise of robots, can we expect a similar transformation in the age of Smart Manufacturing—a transformation foreseen as so radical to be called the fourth industrial revolution? Or will certain aspects of this technological and socio-economic transformation lead to a very different evolution from the ones seen in the past?
Opinions across industry are very mixed.
There are those who theorize a world where the Internet of Things will lead to machines so intelligent and able to coordinate themselves that they will completely replace human labor.
In support of this theory is the rapid evolution of machine intelligence and the increasing availability of artificial intelligence. Those who support this point of viewalso say that the so-called “second economy”—wherein some transactions are exclusively conducted between machines—will grow to such an extent that it will surpass the “first economy”and bring the world toward a social structure in which work is no longer necessary.
Opposed to this view are those who believe that, regardless of the complexity of the implemented algorithms, th einterpretative skills and decision-making characteristic of the human brain will always be necessary.
Viewing this discussion with more than 20 years of experience in developing automated systems for production operations leads me to believe that humans will play a key role in manufacturing for some time to come.
Coming out of the last global economic downturn, companies focused on their key processes and researched competitiveness through efficiency and flexibility. In doing so, they implemented many initiatives to minimize waste and reduce the impact of any process not strictly aimed at achieving desired results. Businesses invested in computer systems that gave operators at all levels accurate and timely information with which to make informed decisions. They also reorganized their business models to reduce the time-to-market of new products, as well as the time necessary to respond to the initiatives of their competitors. In most of these efforts, humans continue to play an integral role and have often been dubbed “empowered operators” as a result of the information and insight increasingly available to them.
Wandering through plants today, we can see firsthand the impact of this transformation. Though there may be fewer workers on the plant floor than in the past, we now see operators with higher technical skills who can make critical decisions independently and are generally more awareof managing business processes both in technological and organizational terms.
The zero labor factory does not seem to be just around the corner, in my opinion. Of course,the number of automated machines will grow quickly and they will replace people in some tasks—primarily those that are repetitive, risky or that require absolute consistency of results over time.However, alongside each of these automated machines there will be one or more operators to monitor their operation and ensure that the machine is acting in accordance with business requirements.