Automation rarely takes center stage in the media. Outside of “How it’s Made” on the Science channel, automation is proud to be an unsung hero of American manufacturing. Yet with the talk of autonomous vehicles, $15 minimum wage and the political message of job return fueled by the rust belt states, it’s a topic inaccurately taking flak.
We need to ensure automation and technology in manufacturing, transportation and infrastructure are drivers that continue to keep America a super power in the world. This technology will continue to usher in change, and change is pain, but automation is a vitally important foundation this country needs to support a quickly developing services based economy.
As professionals in the automation industry we need to help spread an accurate message about automation.
Robots Are Killing All the Jobs:
I won’t try to argue against this point. Robots are killing jobs and will continue to do so. However the bigger issue is not losing jobs to robots. Corporations are designed to make their shareholders money. When a company looks at automation, it’s for improved performance or for cost savings. If cost savings are in question, then those costs are often labor costs. And if labor costs are driving action then the job killing robot is probably the only option that ensures any jobs will be saved.
The alternative is shipping the job somewhere else in the world where someone will do the work for a fraction of the wage.
While a robot may kill jobs, a robot in a factory near you ensures that manufacturing is staying in your community. It will support less jobs, and less low skilled jobs but it being there means a company that pays taxes on its output (at least in theory) will be a member of your community.
If as a country we want to competitively make things, we need automation. Our quality of life and cost of living is too high to make things with a lot of manual labor and stay competitive.
Automation Can’t Do Everything:
I don’t care what minimum wage is, I do not believe the Mc. Employees of the fast food word have much to worry about. I have heard more than a few say, “How hard is it to make a hamburger, robots will doing that tomorrow.”
This isn’t a prime opportunity for automation because fast food automation is actually a really challenging problem to solve.
Mc Donald’s, after a recent reduction, sports 145 menu items. You would need to account for most of these to limit labor. You would also need to retro fit the machine into a small area of around 15-20 feet, which is the average footprint for cooking and assembling. The machine also needs to allow for near infinite customization; buns, meat, sauces, toppings and packaging. The machine would need to schedule for rushes and safely maintain food for quality.
Don’t get me wrong. This machine, while highly complex can without question be built! It wouldn’t be humanoid but an automation assembly line.
The problem is there is no way it can be built, deployed and maintained for less than the cost of the current labor. When the soft serve machine goes down, you lose a few days of ice cream sales. When your Mc Bot 2000 goes down, you close the restaurant.
What About Ordering?
Can’t you automate ordering with a Kiosk or app? Yes, the Starbucks pre-order app was wildly successful. So successful many busy stores reported longer than normal waits because the digital pre-orders were coming in faster than the baristas could barrist! On the flip side look at the Mc. Donald’s breakfast crowd, the ones that dine in the store. These silver foxes still have rotary phones. If they could order from a kiosk they would miss the warm smile that comes with their coffee.
While it’s provocative to say in a minimum wage debate I don’t really think fast food is primed for automation.
Once the technology arrives you still have to force equipment with a 6 figure sticker on franchises. Don’t expect see a Mc. Bot 2000 in a store near you any time soon.
Truckers Look Out
While I believe our friends at the local greasy spoon are safe, I think the Long Haul Truckers should be on alert. The job is going the way for the Milk Man, the Paper Boy and evening TV.
In short order, commercial shipments will start to be delivered on American highways autonomously. These trucks don’t need to rest, can be trusted to follow speed limits and don’t have the very human option of being distracted. Plus from a design standpoint you don’t have to account for a human pilot.
That will put over 1.5 million jobs in jeopardy. With an average annual wage of $42,500, we are looking at the death of a lot of middle class jobs.
Yes, this means we will have to program a computer to decide who likely dies in a bad situation with no other options. While that seems like big deal, legally it’s a question of liability and commercially it’s a question of insurance.
With billions on the line, I think this will take too long to be settled.
Good or Evil
Automation will continue to change manufacturing and transportation in America. This will affect the work force in these industries. Those changes aren’t new phenomenon but will continue to shape our economy and country.
Our early labor economy was agriculture based. Then came manufacturing and industry. Service is now ready for its day in the sun.
The only long term defeasible economic position in a world economy is to create goods. Media and intellectual property are great but for the stability of our economy we need to competitively create tangible goods.
The only way for us to do that is with automation and technology.
Our January survey reflected on a new year, new ways and old ways.
Behind the Numbers:
Resolutions: Clearly the mantra “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” is also being applied when we look in the mirror. This would explain the 66% of respondents who did not have a new years resolution.
Serial: 20% of you are still primarily using serial. I think the main point to accept here is that there is a still a lot of serial being used.
IT and Controls Automation: There are a lot of really smart people forecasting the convergence of IT and Controls. I just don’t see it.
Jimmy from desktop support, the master of PC restarts, is not going to support a 240VAC drive. Doug in controls is never going to be writing a new driver for a SQL data base.
IT may be responsible for the network infrastructure but that is same situation in Accounting, Marketing or any other department. They complement they don’t envelope.
My 2017 New Year’s Resolution is:
___% of the automation work I do includes serial based communications.
Do you plan to participate in any third party technology training in 2017?
How much input does IT have for automation at your company?