Newspaper headlines include a lot of stories about industrial automation (AKA, robot overlords enslaving us and taking away our jobs). Maybe the real question is, what’s delaying that outcome?
Not the enslavement part. There’s not a whole lot of motivation for robots to take that on. A McKinsey study found, however, that nearly half of the activities American workers do in their jobs could be automated to some extent. Only 4% of job activities require a human level of creativity and only 29% need a human level of compassion or social skill. While the percentage of entire jobs that could be replaced by a robot was pinpointed at just 5%, most jobs have as much as 30% robot-ready actions. That’s trillions of dollars worth of savings, and millions of workers whose time could be spent on more valuable tasks.
What’s delaying full automation? It’s certainly not access to the technology. Rexroth has demonstrated the practicality of the Smart Factory, and many current use cases show that increasing automation is completely realistic.
Cost is one of the major motivators for automation. When you can buy a collaborative robot for $25,000 or so and run it every day of the year without healthcare, coffee breaks, overtime, payroll taxes, or recognition of its birthday, why would you bother with a human worker?
This viewpoint ignores some specific cost factors, though. For one thing, automating or increasing automation isn’t just a matter of replacing a worker with a robot. You have to consider the entire system. The upfront cost is greater for automation, without question.
And what if it doesn’t work? If the cookie factory next door automates first and demonstrates increased productivity, lower costs, and higher profits, your cookie factory can follow along and reap the benefits of automation. But whose cookie factory should go first? And if you’re not making cookies, but toys or household furnishings, you’ll have a cookie factory nearby that is still outsourcing manufacturing to China, too. Automation is a gamble if you haven’t tried it before.
The Skills Gap
A new Deloitte report concludes that lack of skills continues to be a big issue for manufacturers. It’s the top challenge for the industry overall, and #2 on the list of reasons manufacturers haven’t been more aggressive about automation.
Even if you’re not scared of enslavement by robot overlords, there are real concerns about how to manage a highly automated system without strong tech skills in the facility.
What if it doesn’t work for us? What if we can’t find people who can control the machines? These aren’t the only questions that keep decision makers up at night.
You also have to wonder how changes in the tax system will affect automation. Carrier took a big government payoff in exchange for keeping its factories in the U.S… and then turned around and replace American workers with robots. Will that influence future tax deals and incentives? How could it not?
And what about those payroll taxes? Robots might be taxable in the future, and that would change the equation.
What about those unforeseen consequences? UPS got its systems up to maximum productivity at one point, and then discovered that commercial customers liked to talk to their drivers. Getting the boxes in and the drivers out as fast as possible was such an obviously good business move — until it turned out not to be.
For larger companies or those with a change-resistant culture, any change takes a lot of time. Industrial automation is on the rise, but it may take a while to get the human beings out of the factories. In the meantime, you can call on us for all your Rexroth electric motion control needs.