What role might robots, cobots, and other automated systems play in the smart factories of the future? That was the subject of a panel discussion at the recent Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit in Birmingham.

The context was the influx of fourth industrial revolution technologies, such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, the Internet of Things (IoT), automation platforms, autonomous systems, predictive analytics, and more, into the manufacturing sector, helping factories to become more efficient, greener, smarter, and less prone to equipment failures.

Steven Carter, Digital Manufacturing Integration Lead, Rolls-Royce, singled out as transformative the disruption from data analytics combined with open-source software and the falling cost of robotics, while Ed Preston, Global Automation Leader at GKN Aerospace, cited the new business models brought about by disruptive technologies.

Alan Newman, Advanced Manufacturing Engineering & Technical Director, De La Rue, picked up on this point, explaining that the falling costs of automation systems mean that these technologies are no longer the sole preserve of high-volume operations.

But organisations should employ systems strategically, not tactically, suggested Carter, who said that projects are often too short-term in focus, and fail to consider upstream and downstream processes. Also the human impacts of automation are not given enough consideration, he said.

Last year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published an in-depth report on The Future of Jobs. It found that 75 million roles will be displaced by Industry 4.0 technologies in the next few years, but suggested that 133 million new jobs could be created: a net gain of 58 million.

However, manual assembly and factory workers will be among the hardest hit by these changes, found the WEF, along with car, van, and motorcycle drivers.

The organisation also painted a bleak future for many roles that were once considered safe middle-class careers. Financial analysts, accountants, auditors, lawyers, bank tellers, clerks, general managers, business services managers, and administrators were all described as redundant roles in this new context.

Meanwhile, data analysts, AI specialists, digital transformation leaders, robotics professionals, user experience and interaction designers, and process automation experts are among those who could experience an employment boom, said the WEF. All are roles that machines would find hard to replicate.

In Birmingham, GKN’s Preston observed that project teams often fail to consider the total cost of ownership of automated systems. The cost of technology may have fallen significantly, he said, but the cost of integrating and maintaining it has not.

For De La Rue’s Newman, too much focus is being placed on the hard, financial gains of automation, rather than the ‘softer’ benefits, such as employee satisfaction levels and improved workplace cultures.

Guiding every decision should be an understanding that ROI and business improvements of every kind are being delivered and can be sustained, he said.

  • Two thirds of companies have either implemented, are currently implementing, or plan to implement an industrial transformation programme, according to new research published by analyst firm LNS Research.

“Companies all over the world are going beyond Continuous Improvement to achieve step-change improvements in business through Industrial Transformation (IX) programmes,” said the firm.

“Many industrials are finding those step-change improvements in the form of incremental revenue opportunities and cost savings. Industrial transformation is working with eight percent of companies already reporting ‘dramatic results’.”

Be part of a discussion and connect with like-minded leaders in your sector at our forthcoming trade event – The Sensor Show – next year.