CHICAGO—After Markus Lorenz, managing director at the Boston Consulting Group in Munich, examined all the benefits of automation and robotics in manufacturing this morning at the Automate conference here, an attendee asked him how he handles questions about smart machines and self-controlled supply chains taking over humans’ jobs.
Yes, some jobs will disappear for humans, he acknowledged. But “the full story has to do with the types of work that are changing.” People will work alongside uncaged robots. In clean rooms at some factories, “the true story is a lot of people are involved, even though they might not be in a photo of a clean room. Predictive service is key. People are supported by augmented reality jobs.”
Looking out eight years, “human labor will play a critical role” in ushering in automation that offers some guarantees humans cannot offer, Lorenz said.
“An autonomous vehicle will never consume alcohol” while humans can obviously do so—with the obvious threat of it impairing their ability to perform, he added.
When such advantages robots have over humans become more apparent—and those advantages are understood to outweigh any disadvantages associated with automation—“we’ll see that this is not the threatening robot that will kill our jobs anymore but a machine that will help our work” and regulations will change to support wider use of robotics, he said.
A Chinese firm with which Lorenz is familiar replaced three people who used to do back-breaking palletizing with a robot. The payback for the bot? Six months.
As for the three workers, the way they can keep working is to redefine their role, he said. “If I define myself as the guy who moves stuff from A to B, indeed the robot is my enemy. But if I define my job as being in ‘logistics’ or working in ‘commissioning’ [getting products in the right place on the right shelves in drug stores, for example] then my job can be secure.”
Sticking with old technology dangerous
Lorenz began his talk highlighting the German yogurt maker he patronized growing up: While it years ago offered only a handful of flavors, it now offers dozens. And yet it continues to use a control system modeled after one that was developed for nuclear power plants, the standard in the 1970s, he said.
He showed a photo of the firm’s factory, illustrating how not growing technology with the times can lead to a “mess.”
The company has “great machinery” that’s reliable and robust (in that it helps the company meet federal hygiene requirements), but the machines are not intelligent, he said.
Machines infused with intelligence are not a desire; they are a need, he suggested.
Smart machines would avoid a yogurt container with chocolate-flavor packaging leaving the factory with hazelnut flavored yogurt inside. That’s partially because of the pace of manufacturing today: The yogurt maker he referenced produces 24,000 jars of yogurt every hour it is operating.
And, Lorenz said, that could avoid a big problem with people who have nut allergies eating food with nuts in it.
On top of that, “mis-filling is a product loss,” he said, noting that such a product can only be brought back for non-human consumption, such as pig farming. Product loss in food processing adds up to $18 billion a year, he added.
Plants today that have gone the automation route are often set up as automated cells—but they are commonly isolated, Lorenz said. With integrated data from the cells, a lot of waste can be avoided, he added.
Lorenz described his vision of the future: A digital twin that “decides best way to produce products.” Machines equipped with seeing and sensing technology to coordinate the activity of cells. Uncaged robots, accompanied by humans wearing virtual reality (VR) glasses.
Flexible and efficient supply chains. Automated forklifts. Manufacturers in control of products after they leave the factory. Data from products out in the field used to improve manufacturing processes.
Balancing act can pay off
In shipping, an obvious winning technology is souped-up crane equipment—the motor and drive—that costs about $5,000, he said.
“The drive controlling a motor can sense the weight of a container: Added sensors and built-in software measure the weight of containers and [control] ship loading to optimize weight balancing.”
A floating ship that is well balanced can glide through the water with less effort—and save $5,000 a day, he noted.