A recent Oxford study estimates that by 2034, 47% of all jobs will have been taken over by a robot—either in the form of a physical robot on the factory floor, or a robot in the form of a computer program, or a combination of the two. Far-fetched? Far from it: this, say experts, is likely to be the future of manufacturing.
And a little thought reveals that such a projection isn’t as unlikely as it first seems. Quite apart from advances in technology, whatever else the future of manufacturing holds, its days as a net creator of jobs are probably in the past. The manufacturing industry these days is slimmer and more productive than ever before.
And that is likely to accelerate, goes the argument. Because it’s not so much the physical advances in robotics technology that will impact the future of manufacturing to bring about this revolution, as the fact that these are also allied to advances in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and predictive analytics.
And powerfully, when these are combined with physical automation, the result is technology that is agile enough and smart enough to replace humans.
The rise of the cobots
This robotised future of manufacturing won’t arrive overnight. Think about self-scan supermarket checkouts displacing checkout operators, and driverless cars replacing taxi drivers. Or advanced artificial intelligence programs replacing doctors performing diagnostics.
The technology may be here, in short, but it will co-exist alongside older, human-powered technology for quite some time yet.
And, in the form of cobotics, that co-existence is likely to be the model for how the future of manufacturing is embraced by factory floors.
Cobotics? If the term is new to you, it’s a shortened form of ‘collaborative robotics’, and best explained by this helpful definition:
“Collaborative robots are complex machines which work hand in hand with human beings. In a shared work process, they support and relieve the human operator.”
And already, cobots are starting to be seen in ordinary manufacturing businesses here in Western Europe, often in repetitive assembly environments, typically helping operators and cells building customised-to-order or configured-to-order products.
Recently we wrote about what the rise of the cobot means for your manufacturing business. As cobots get smarter, with built-in machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities, expect ‘helping operators’ to gradually turn into ‘replacing operators’. For factory floors, at least, that appears to be the future of manufacturing.
The factory floor is just the start
What about elsewhere in the factory? How will the future of manufacturing see robots displace humans there?
A lot of material replenishment, internal transport, and lineside delivery looks ripe for automation.
For if self-driving cars are on busy city roads, it can’t be too difficult to get automated self-driving capabilities working within factories. Indeed, trials of just such technology are already taking place within hotels and hospitals.
Similarly, inspection and quality control are likely to be impacted by artificial intelligence and machine learning, with robotic judgement first supplementing human judgement, and then replacing it.
‘Lights out’ robotic warehouses—both inbound and outbound—are another strong contender.
Roll it all together, and one thing is clear. The future of manufacturing is going to be, well... interesting.
The bottom line? As with many technology shifts, those businesses that embrace change faster are likely to do better than those which resist it.
The world doesn’t stand still. So, it’s important for manufacturers to keep abreast of emerging manufacturing technology trends. What can we learn from Gartner’s latest take on the genre? Find out more here: 3 key takeaways from Gartner’s top ten technology trends.
So if cobots, artificial intelligence and machine learning aren’t already on your agenda, perhaps they should be.