It wasn't too long ago that talking about 'the year 2000' conjured images of flying cars, food in pill form, and self-tying shoelaces. Nearly two decades later, such technological marvels have yet to appear (at least on a mass-produced scale) but that doesn't mean the human race has fallen completely behind when it comes to futuristic tech. Rather, we've made great strides in other sectors, such as space travel, the internet, and industrial automation.
In this article, we're going to take an in-depth look at the future of industrial automation, with a particular focus on whether or not humans will always be necessary for it to function as designed.
What is industrial automation?
In short, industrial automation refers to man-made machines, such as computers or robots, that have been programmed to carry out tasks which used to be the sole preserve of humans. This could be anything from a line of automatic drills bolting pieces of a car into place, to driverless forklifts picking up pallets from one location and dropping them off at another.
Automation is already an enormous part of many peoples' lives.
Automation is already an enormous part of many people's lives. Research carried out by Visa has found that some seven in 10 millennials (those born between 1981 and 1996) prefer to use mobile apps to open accounts as opposed to going into a branch – that's another form of automation.
The possible future of industrial automation
A workforce dominated by programmed machines is a terrifying thought to many. Did you know that, according to a report produced by McKinsey Global Institute, some 375 million jobs currently occupied by humans will be fully automated by 2030? That's a huge number, and the same report goes on to state that approximately 50 per cent of the time spent on work activities, on a global scale, could, in theory, be automated should current technologies be adapted. Looking even further into the future, a University of Oxford study has found that nearly half of all jobs (47 per cent) could disappear over the next 25 years.
Should such predictions come to pass, where will this leave the human workforce? Will there be mass unemployment, or will we find a way to peacefully co-work with our new robotic colleagues? These are the questions currently perplexing experts as the world prepares to become fully automated.
So, will automated machinery ever fully replace people?
It's difficult to say. In an article appearing in Industry Week, writer Yan-David Erlich visited a household products manufacturing plant. He found that this near 300,000 square metre facility employed just 75 living, breathing humans. The rest of the warehouse was made up endless lines of machinery hammering away at their task Though it may have seemed to the untrained eye that machines had taken over the facility, this was actually far from the case.
No matter how advanced a machine may be, there has to be a person (or team of people) behind it.
Rather, those 75 employees, with a not inconsiderable 15 years' average experience behind them, were the real ones running the show. No matter how advanced a machine may be, there has to be a person (or team of people) behind it – handling the programming, performing maintenance. We're certainly a fair way away from where we can leave machines to their own devices for months on end.
On that note, we can confidently say humans will still be an integral part of the industrial landscape for a couple of generations yet, but even so, it's likely that human intervention will tail off as the years progress.
In what sectors could machines replace humans?
A separate McKinsey article states that of all current manufacturing jobs, some 59 per cent could feasibly be automated. However, that statistic is tempered by the fact that only humans can complete the remaining 41 per cent. So, in which sectors will machines gradually take over?
The report states that the most accurate way to record how technically feasible automation might be is to analyse work activities, rather than actual jobs. So, using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics and O*Net, it was discovered that 78 per cent of 'predictable physical work' was most susceptible to automation.
This includes tasks such as welding, food preparation and packaging goods – automated processes that are already in use today. This was followed by data processing and data collection, with large amounts of information perfectly suited to computers that aren't liable to make mistakes as a fatigued human might.
By far the most obvious candidate for automation, the manufacturing sector continues to automate year on year. Repetitive, predictable tasks, from packaging products, loading pallets and mixing soup, can all be performed by robots, as can building cars, computers and a raft of other goods. However, manufacturing isn't actually the top contender when it comes to automation as you might think. Rather, that accolade actually belongs to…
- Food service
That's right. In many restaurants (especially the fast food variety) much of the cooking is already fully automated, with human workers simply having to press a button to cook burgers or lift a fry basket from the vat. Coffee machines and soft drink towers dispense their beverages automatically. Several restaurants already allow the customer to order food themselves, via a touch screen, without the need for a human server.
The McKinsey article states that some 73 per cent of activities performed by food service employees could technically be automated, but it might be expensive to implement. That's because hospitality workers typically earn a lower-than-average wage, so replacing them with expensive machinery might not always be as cost-effective as it might initially seem.
Retail is also well on the way to becoming fully automated. Supermarkets have had self-service checkouts for years now, and such technology is steadily spreading to other brick-and-mortar shops. However, it's the online space where retail automation really comes alive. Soon, delivery by drone will become commonplace. A television set will arrive at your door from Amazon, or perhaps a pizza will be flown in from Domino's. That TV or pizza will have been made by robots, packaged by machines, and delivered by drone – three full-time jobs that in the past would have been completed by humans.
Australia is already taking a lead when it comes to drone delivery.
Australia is already taking a lead when it comes to drone delivery. Bonython, a suburb of Canberra, is currently being used as a testing site for this technology, but mainstream rollout is quite a way off. There are still several regulatory hurdles to overcome, let alone technical hitches – the residents of Bonython are currently having to contend with broken packages delivered to the incorrect address, and noise complaints are commonplace. Each of these factors will need a solution before delivery by drone is a common sight in our towns and cities.
In what sectors is automation less likely?
At the lower end of the automation feasibility scale was 'applying expertise' (18 per cent) and managing others (9 per cent). Let's take a look at the sectors that will be less susceptible to automation over the coming years.
It's likely that those employed in healthcare will be staying in their jobs for a few years yet, even though it is true that artificial intelligence is taking over some tasks in the industry. In a new report released by Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, it was found that home health aides have just an eight per cent chance of being automated by 2030, with registered nurses at 29 per cent.
Healthcare practitioners, and those in technical occupations, have a 33 per cent chance of losing their jobs to automation, which rises to 49 per cent for those in supporting roles. This is because health work will always likely require contact with patients and a large amount of expertise. It was found by McKinsey, for example, that just 13 per cent of a dental hygienist's tasks could feasibly be automated.
Of each of the sectors analysed by McKinsey, it was discovered that education was the least likely to become automated in the near future. Even though digital technology has revolutionised the way children learn, teaching remains deeply ingrained by the use of strong expertise and, perhaps even more so, interactions with students.
It was discovered that education was the least likely to become automated in the near future.
That said, it was found that some 27 per cent of activities based in education, especially those that don't require a classroom, can be automated. Though the link to education might be tenuous, cleaning duties could be carried out by robots, as could the preparation of school dinners. Additionally, the administrative running of a school could feasibly be accomplished by harnessing the power of computers.
How do we know which human roles can be automated?
Of course, technical feasibility is a big factor when considering processes for automation, but it's not the only thing to bear in mind. The cost of developing and implementing automated hardware must also be looked at, as should supply-and-demand in the sector. By that, let's say that a factory owner is thinking about automating his or her facility. Should there be an abundant supply of workers, wages can be kept down, and it may work out quite a bit cheaper than implementing automated hardware on the premises.
It's also of paramount importance that we examine regulatory and social acceptance factors. Let's say that a highly advanced robot has been programmed to perform delicate brain surgery on a human patient. That robot has a 99.9 per cent chance of carrying out the surgery perfectly, higher than even the most skilled, experienced surgeon. However, would the patient in question be comfortable in the knowledge that such a machine is going to perform such a critical procedure? It depends upon the person, but it's likely that more than a few might be apprehensive, and would prefer the human professional to carry out the work.
It's true that as technology continues to develop, robots and other forms of artificial intelligence will eventually replace human workers. However, it's also likely that, for the foreseeable future, humans will work alongside their robotic counterparts in perfect harmony. It has to be said that just because the technical potential for industrial automation is feasible, it doesn't necessarily mean that this will be the case. Rather, businesses will look at costs, supply-and-demand, regulatory and other social factors to ensure moving to automation will be worth it.
Here at Interconnect Solutions, we're all for the technical revolution. Our range of hardware continues to push boundaries across a range of industries. Be sure to get in touch with us to find out more about our innovations, and how they can help your operation.