8 tipping points that will determine when the robots will arrive

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky

How do you think your smartphone was made? You might imagine it was assembled by machines in a gleaming, automated factory. The truth is, it was probably put together on a 110-meter assembly line, staffed by people working shoulder-to-shoulder every 0.6 meters. Today, most consumer electronics devices are still assembled by hand — but this will change soon, and a lot faster than most people think.

In the showdown between man and machine, both sides of that equation have been changing in the favor of replacing humans in the factory with robots. Automation is a forgone conclusion — here’s why:

  1. Operator Availability: Assembly line work is repetitive and demanding, and the global labor market is changing. While for years, the world has relied on the low cost labor markets in Asia, the fact is that today there are not enough people available to meet the growing demand for labor. A major company preparing to ramp up a flagship product will need to find tens of thousands of people to work their lines — and the seemingly endless supply is starting to dry up. Turnover is high, as much as 15% week-over-week — and training from the street to the line can take up to three weeks. In China, those loss rates skyrocket to as much as 50% or 80% during Lunar New Year and Golden Week.
  2. Operator Cost: As a consequence of operator availability, the cost of labor is rapidly increasing — some reports from China are claiming costs have doubled in a year.
  3. Downtime: Humans need rest. Currently assembly line workers in China work 10 hours shifts, 6 days a week.
  4. Human Logistics: To employ tens of thousands of operators, housing, transport, and food all need to be arranged. Where will the living quarters go? How far away from the line are those quarters? How will the workforce move back and forth? It may sound silly, but busing in operators to manufacturing centers has been a key strategy to support massive production ramps in the last couple of years.
  5. Superior Hardware: The human machine has remarkable sensory (eyes) and motor hardware (fingers) that has served us well for millennia. Machines have finally started to catch up, and at reasonable cost. High resolution camera systems are affordable, capture much more than visible light, and can store the data in perpetuity. Machine manipulators have improved as well, though most solutions must still be custom: using off-the-shelf building blocks, there are many integrators eager to build solutions for customers seeking tighter tolerances, strict SOP compliance, and a log of critical data.
  6. Data Outputs: When compared to machines, humans are terribly slow at data output — we can speak, type, or write. We will also inadvertently inject errors into the data. Machines, on the other hand, can reliably communicate data at the speed of light.
  7. Recall and Processing: A human has very limited recall ability when faced with processing thousands of units per day. A machine can not only save all of the data, it can run algorithms on its data to provide useful information — either by brute force or perhaps by…
  8. Intelligence: This has long been seen as the defining human quality: the capacity to learn, to evaluate new situations, to develop insights, and to make decisions in new ways. It is our intelligence that makes humans easy to “program”: we can apply years of prior experience to be retrained to perform a new task in minutes. Today, machines are frankly still pretty dumb: they need to be carefully programmed by engineers who can anticipate the corner cases and the ways a system can fail. The gap between human and machine intelligence is narrowing, however, and this is the area of greatest opportunity for manufacturing in the coming decade.

Of the 8 traits mentioned, humans now only retain the edge in intelligence. Gains in machine intelligence are coming, and due to the dynamics of competition, all manufacturers will have no choice but to move towards automation once the transition begins. This may change where all the things we touch and use everyday are made.

This change also carries great opportunity: there is still significant opportunity for improvement in manufacturing — it’s hard, and even the biggest brands struggle with mistakes and delays. Advances in robotics and AI may give society unprecedented manufacturing capability and efficiency. It will also change the dynamics of the global manufacturing market, where the greatest differentiator in the cost of manufacturing will be proximity to the supply chain and the cost of the land — not the labor.

Whether you build with people, robots, or both, Instrumental can help you and your factory identify defects, prevent recalls, and avoid delays. See our technology in action by requesting a demo today.

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