Automation in the workplace is nothing new. In fact, automated manufacturing can have its roots traced back all the way to the 1700’s. Of course, we are not using the same spinning wheel that was first used centuries ago. Automation has grown and evolved as technology and manufacturing practices have become more advanced. Now, manufacturing automation is a major part of a successful manufacturing business and rapidly advancing technology is forcing the topic into discussion more than ever before. Let’s take a look at some of the most common automated manufacturing systems and what the future may hold.
How Manufacturing Automation is Used Today
Automated manufacturing systems can vary wildly depending on the industry in which they are used and the processes used in each specific manufacturing operation. With that said, there are some basic automation processes that you can find in many different manufacturing businesses.
Most modern automation applications make use of automatic control systems. Typically, these systems are controlled by modern computer systems. Programmable logic controllers (PLC) can be custom designed for specific manufacturing lines and eliminate the need for hardware controls.
As computers become more powerful it is not uncommon to have a single computer replace several lesser computers in some automated manufacturing systems. Until recently, complex manufacturing systems would have one computer operating one controller. Now a single computer can operate dozens or even hundreds of controllers while also receiving, analyzing, and distributing important data.
The Future of Manufacturing and Automation Technology
Humanity is right on the edge of an automation revolution. Not only are the computers used in automatic control systems becoming more and more powerful but there are a variety of new technologies being implemented in the manufacturing process.
Artificial intelligence is one of the big technological advances that could change manufacturing in ways we cannot even begin to imagine today. Right now, artificial intelligence is not advanced enough to completely take over an assembly line but it’s only a matter of time before there are jobs occupied by artificial intelligence applications. This artificial intelligence could be used to find delays or inefficiencies in manufacturing processes by analyzing data in a way that humans simply cannot process at the same speed. There may also be opportunities for artificial intelligence to analyze sales numbers and manage production output to best suit consumer demand.
Blockchain is another major advancement that could change the entire manufacturing process from gathering of raw materials all the way to retail delivery. For those that are not aware, blockchain is a decentralized network of computers that can each analyze and verify a distributed set of information. You can think of a blockchain like an Excel spreadsheet that can be edited by hundreds or thousands of different people. That’s an overly simplistic way of explaining blockchain technology but it’s a good primer for those who have never heard the term before. Blockchain is mainly known for cryptocurrency applications but the technology could also be used in manufacturing to track components, finished products, raw materials, and more. There is the potential that an entire fulfillment department could be a single blockchain ledger that automatically supports manufacturing.
Finally, robots are going to be a major change for manufacturing automation. Robots are already used in manufacturing today but they are often designed for a basic, single task. As robotics becomes more advanced we may see multi-purpose robots on manufacturing lines performing multiple tasks. Combine these robots with powerful artificial intelligence and they may completely change the efficiency of manufacturing.
How Will This Affect Humans?
It’s inevitable that a discussion about automated manufacturing systems will prompt questions about what this means for people and their jobs. It’s impossible to say with any certainty. In the past, automation has often created additional jobs as efficiency increases and specialized human support staff is hired. Could the next great automation revolution finally remove the need for humans? It’s unlikely.
As technology continues to advance there will be more and more positions for programmers, engineers, and mechanics. Artificial intelligence and robots can only do whatever people tell them to do. For those who are ready to greet the future with open arms, there could be high paying jobs available as manufacturing automation takes huge leaps forward.
On the consumer side of things, the hope is that a more efficient and automated manufacturing process will lower the cost of producing goods. Ideally, those savings will be passed onto shoppers and allow people to stretch their dollars further and own more incredible products. Again, it’s impossible to predict the future. One thing is for sure, however; automation is already here and advancing technology will only make automation more powerful in the coming years.
Feature image via ESI Engineering Specialties, inc.