Imagine an automated factory, devoid of human life, where manufacturing activities are performed by robots that work as effectively with the lights off as they do with the lights on. This is known as “lights out” manufacturing, and it’s a reality that our world is hurtling toward.
The manufacturing industry has long sought to replace humans with robots, especially in assembly operations. Recent events, however, are pushing companies to integrate automation into manufacturing processes like never before. Let’s explore the rise of automation and see what the future holds for mechanical engineers, who may soon find themselves alone on the factory floor.
The Push for Automation
The goal of automation is to reduce costs, errors and variability in the manufacturing process by replacing humans — hardworking though we may be — with inexpensive robots. One of the main advantages of automation is its ability to relieve humans of mindless, repetitive and potentially dangerous tasks. Many business owners would rather see an articulated robot break down than see a worker become seriously injured. These points are becoming increasingly relevant now that the manufacturing industry is experiencing a labor shortage.
The manufacturing industry has about half a million job openings, according to CNN Business. Manufacturers have struggled to fill entry-level positions, let alone specialized roles, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this labor shortage. In the eyes of many, manufacturing was already a hazardous industry. Now, young workers are avoiding the industry out of fear of contracting COVID-19 or being replaced by robots or overseas workers, despite the wealth of rewarding manufacturing careers still available. In response to the global pandemic, over half of all U.S. businesses are expecting to increase automation investments.
The Challenges of Automation
With all of the advantages of automation, it may seem surprising that “lights out” facilities aren’t more commonplace. Industrial robots have been around since 1961 when Unimate, a hydraulic heavy-lifting arm, was first used by General Motors. However, replicating the thought processes and fine movements of a human being remains above the pay grade of even the most advanced robots.
Take a look at your hand. Millions of years of evolution have gone into engineering an appendage precise enough to pluck a guitar string but robust enough to hammer a nail into place. A robotic hand would need numerous motors to compete, which is why so few robots have more than three fingers.
The world’s most advanced application robots can be found in manufacturing precisely because so many tasks require little more than for a robot arm to reach out, grab an item from a conveyor belt, and affix a part into place. Many seemingly dull or repetitive tasks performed by humans, however, actually require an incredible amount of precision and skill. To completely replace humans on the manufacturing line, robots would also need to make on-the-fly decisions, a difficult feat to accomplish with an algorithm.
A Personal Touch
One of the goals of automation is to increase quality and cost-effectiveness by reducing errors in the manufacturing process. Still, though we may be quick to blame individual human missteps for many manufacturing mistakes, the majority of human errors — about 70 percent — stem from “latent organizational weakness.” This means that most human mistakes are made not out of malice or inability but because of poorly designed workflows.
The sole focus of automation shouldn’t be to replace humans entirely. Rather, automation should take over repetitive, high-volume production activities, while supporting workers as they complete tasks requiring a human touch.
The Future of Automation
“Lights out” may not be a perfect balance of humans and robots, but it’s nonetheless the direction in which the manufacturing industry is headed. According to McKinsey & Company, labor costs have increased over the past 30 years, while robot prices have fallen by half over the course of the same period. Throughout this time, there’s also been:
- An increase in the availability of robotics engineers.
- Advances in computing technology and software development.
- New developments in robotics and mechanical engineering.
These new developments mean that companies already investing in robots will continue to do so. Emerging technologies, such as advances in artificial intelligence, are allowing robots to perform complex tasks with an accuracy of 0.02 millimeters. The robots of the future will be precise enough to thread a needle, opening up the possibility of robots taking on new roles.
“For the first time, we’re seeing that these technologies are both increasing productivity, lowering cost, but they’re also increasing flexibility,” McKinsey Senior Partner Katy George told The New York Times. Not only will this flexibility afford companies the freedom to decide which tasks to automate, but it will also allow employees to work alongside robots without the fear of injury.
What Does Automation Mean for Mechanical Engineers?
Despite calls for concern, automation continues to make headway, especially in manufacturing. (Even Elon Musk warned of artificial intelligence before doing a 180 and announcing a Tesla humanoid robot.) Manufacturers will soon be looking at their workers and wondering who can be replaced and who can work alongside a robot — if they aren’t doing so already.
Worried? Don’t be. As a mechanical engineer, you won’t be replaced by robots anytime soon, but you may be overlooked in this competitive field if you don’t have essential and up-to-date knowledge of robots, automation and artificial intelligence.
The University of Texas at Austin offers a 100% online Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering and a Mechanical Engineering Controls Graduate Certificate that can empower you with industry-relevant skills invaluable for career advancement. Become a graduate student and enroll in courses like Introduction to Automatic Control, which provides foundational knowledge of automation. This course, like all our other offerings, is updated regularly in response to industry trends and will help you remain at the forefront of an industry forever changed by automation and robotics.
Ready to keep up with emerging technologies? Apply to one of our 100% online engineering programs and become an irreplaceable asset in the field of mechanical engineering.