You’re walking to work one bright and sunny morning, picking up a cup of handcrafted coffee with the barrista’s special artistic crema design, and an artisanal pastry made from scratch at the bakery. Your tie was hand sewn from silk recycled from used saris and you’re carrying a handmade messenger bag you bought on Etsy. Your lunch will be a limited edition beer from a local microbrewery and a sandwich you built from artisanal bread and local farm produce,with a piquant small-batch mustard made in a tiny facility on the edge of town from single source mustard seeds.
Or maybe you’re driving through and grabbing a cup of mass-produced coffee and an Egg McMuffin, dressed in head to toe polyester and completely sure that you’ll be swinging through a fast food drive-thru for lunch as well.
Both approaches are part of our modern culture, and both rely on smartphones, computers, and mass-produced tools. Both rely on automation.
But just as there’s an enormous gap between hand-squeezed orange juice and a juice product stored in steel tanks for months before being processed for sale, there’s a big difference between having a servo motor or two running a couple of machines and full automation.
Shop floor automation is taking off very slowly. Only 2 to 3 percent of American factories are electronically monitored. Most use a range of machines, too many and too dissimilar to be networked. The smart factory is far in the future.
Yet robots, including collaborative robots, are becoming more affordable and easier to use. 3-D printing, maker spaces, and software-based machinery are bringing automation to small to medium sized businesses.
Automation reduces waste, limits costs, and increases safety for human workers by taking on dangerous jobs.
And automation may provide solutions for the staffing problems that plague U.S. manufacturers, from the skills gap to the increasing number of jobs most Americans just aren’t willing to take.