Automation and Paradigm Shift

The Manufacturing Innovation Network Breakfast went great last week.  Nearly all of the seats were full, and there was a plentiful of discussion afterward.   The discussion was about the role of automation in the not so distant future.  We talked about how automation and drones are now even working in the fields.

Robots came about due to advanced manufacturing techniques and now or very soon, robots will be heavily in the employ of advanced manufacturing.  The consequences of this will likely be the need for fewer people for the manual labor aspects of manufacturing.  However, that does not mean that people are out of the equation. To be successful, those that remain must have a variety of skills. We will discuss more on the people aspect later.  The real discussion point is the notion that we can use our present experience to infer how this will impact our organization.  So far, organizations have automated portions of their manufacturing.  The portion that has been automated allowed for a reduction in human labor for that particular area of the manufacturing, but often the automation moved the bottleneck or throughput constriction downstream.  We would simply move the human resource from the area that has been automated to the downstream or depending portion of the manufacturing process to reduce or eliminate the bottleneck.

When we speak of the level of automation heading our way, we are talking about a more comprehensive set.  That is, we are not referring to portions of the process but the majority if not the entirety of the manufacturing process that can be automated, everything from the moving material to building of the product.  This would mean there are few opportunities to employ the labor as we once did.  Our old paradigm of shifting labor around and in some cases actually increasing the labor to handle these depending tasks due to increased throughput may not apply in the future.  Additionally, just because the automation makes massive volumes possible, that does not mean the factory will produce at maximum volume. The volume produced will be dependent upon the volume demand from the customer.

The next wave of automation will be much more ubiquitous than the last incarnation, building and moving instead of largely moving material.  Some of the rules that applied for partial automation may not apply for whole scale automation of the manufacturing process.  We may be surprised when the automation hits our talent harder than we think due to this previous paradigm thinking.

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