The Rise of Automated Technology & the implications for the Process Industry

Automation has been a key component of manufacturing for some time now. But with rapid advancements spawning mainstream gadgetry – like Google's driverless cars, mooted robotic soldiers, and 'the internet of things' – PIF reports on whether all this technical wizardry has made life better or worse for the Process Industry.

The case against: Rage against the machine

Erik Brynjolfsson is a professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Brynjolfsson and his collaborator Andrew McAfee have argued that technological advancements have hamstrung employment growth in the United States over the last decade or more.

Last year the MIT Technology Review ran a feature, entitled 'How technology is destroying jobs,' depicting some of Brynjolfsson and McAfee's views. Author, David Rotman said,

“They believe that rapid technological change has been destroying jobs faster than it is creating them, contributing to the stagnation of median income and the growth of inequality in the United States. And, they suspect, something similar is happening in other technologically advanced countries.”

It's a stark assertion and one which has led the two academics to coin the notion of the “great uncoupling.” A theory designed to explain the unabated rise in productivity, versus job growth stagnation. Seen on a graph, two lines depicting productivity and total US employment correlated harmoniously from the post-war era until the turn of the millennium. At which point the lines diverged and latterly parted.

Video: ‪Flight of the Conchords-Robots‬

The case for: Bicentennial man

Robots needn't be feared. That's the logic of Rethink Robotics, who are flipping the script with their affable and affordable “Baxter” robot. The quizzically featured industrial aid requires no safety cages, complex programming or costly integration and costs a very economical $25,000 (USD) for the entry-level unit.

According to their website's sales pitch:

“At Rethink Robotics, we believe that all manufacturers, regardless of size and technology experience, should have an equal opportunity to benefit from production robots.

They should be affordable. They should be safe to operate around people. They should be easy to train and work right out of the box. And most of all, they should help U.S. manufacturers increase production while keeping jobs from migrating overseas."

Re-think robots - baxter the robot

Baxter uses “behavior-based ‘common sense’” to learn new skills and adapt to his environment. In other words, once he has been shown how to carry out an action (through simple manipulation of his limbs, which are then saved to memory) he can autonomously repeat that task indefinitely.

That's exactly the USP of Mitsubishi Electric's range of industrial robotic arms. Steve Kirby, Sales Manager at Mitsubishi Electric told PIF: “Effectively it's replacing people doing very repetitive tasks with something that would run 24/7 and never take a break.

Mitsubishi Robotic arm

“You can get payback on a robot system in less than four months, compared to employing people to do the same type of jobs. So the benefits are huge,” he adds.

Our verdict?

Ok, so there's a loose theoretical argument that automated technology may have played a part in US unemployment rates of late. But it's inconclusive. In fact, robotic technology has more likely given us added plant safety by filling the mundane, accident-riddled roles of old and yielded greater productivity as a result.

At the end of the day, the indomitable force of human creativity and logic will continue to prevail. There will always be certain tasks that can't be assigned to a machine. Right? That's what we like to think anyway.

Could there be a day when technology becomes smarter than us? Has it already happened?! Could the dearth of young engineering talent one day be filled by autonomous drones? Not just yet. But it's worth bearing in mind next time you're dozing off in a tedious meeting...

#PIForum Debate
(For comments on blog and Twitter)

Q: Is automated technology good or bad for Engineering & Manufacturing?


Get the latest process industry news

Interested in receiving even more industry-leading news from Process Industry Forum delivered directly to your inbox? Then sign up to our free newsletter. Bringing you the latest news, trends, innovations and opinion from across the process industry, our exclusive newsletter gives you all the industry insights of the moment in one, easy-to-digest bulletin. Stay ahead of the competition with regular process industry news instalments from PIF.

    Our Partners