Is automation a threat to people’s jobs or the next step in manufacturing?

10th March 2023
Harry Fowle

The narrative often pushed by mainstream media is that automation is a looming omnipresent threat that will one day steal the jobs of millions around the globe, but will this really be the case? Instead, is this simply the next step in automating monotonous tasks, driving manufacturing to its full potential, and creating a more efficient world overall? To explore this idea further, Electronic Specifier spoke to Joe Booth, CEO of Altus Group, who is working with organisations to automate their facilities and services.

Where is automation being utilised the most?

Automation is being seen more across a variety of different sectors, from food shopping to smart factories. With manufacturing, automation is seen as the next step in evolving the process into the modern age – so where exactly are we seeing automation?

According to Booth, some of the most popular sectors that are seeing an increased demand for automation are robotics for monotonous work, inspection processes, component counting, scanning, smart racking, and production line handling. Although he does go on to say: “It is difficult to pinpoint the exact process except for the few high notes mentioned. I think the spotlight is on every process, and that every site is different, every site has its own bottleneck.” This seems to be the general consensus – technically almost all areas in manufacturing could see automation, but for now, each organisation is utilising it for their specific needs.

This is what Altus is offering for its clients when it comes to automation, their job being “to go into a site, put a spotlight over everything and say, ‘this is good, you’re fine here, but if I had your money, this is where I would be utilising it.’”

For Booth, some of the most popular products that are in high demand are those relating to the highlighted areas mentioned previously. More manufacturers than ever are investing in creating processes such as a fully automated Surface Mount Technology (SMT) line, to increase production efficiency and cover areas such as handling, monotonous work, and inspection.

Automated Optical Inspection (AOI) tools as well as Serial Peripheral Interfaces (SPI) are also highly popular items that enable automation and help to streamline manufacturing processes. The replacement of traditional 2D AOI tools with automated 3D AOI tools helps massively with problems such as false calls and time consumption in checking processes.

Why automate?

Automation comes with many benefits that make it a more than viable option for organisations, especially those in manufacturing. As previously mentioned, automation can allow companies to alleviate bottlenecks they might have in their sites, filling in these problem areas with efficient and effective solutions that can scale with the company moving forward. Scalability and manageability are two more of the key benefits automation provides, being far more adaptable as automation gains traction.

However, above all, Booth says that the efficiency and consistency of automating processes is what makes it truly indispensable. “The output consistency is phenomenal, and eliminates the room for human error,” notes Booth. Efficiency is practically unmatched as well, the harsh truth being that machines simply beat humans when it comes to throughput. The example Booth provided helped to realise just how much can be gained through automation. In the case of something like robotic soldering machines, the output of those machines can beat a human’s output on the top of their game “between two and three times the output,” and for something like selective soldering, “up to four to six times the output,” explains Booth. Is it really any wonder why the demand is growing?

Automation replacing people

All of this seems to point to a world in the not-so-distant future where humans will have no place in the manufacturing industry thanks to our robotic rivals, but is this really going to be the reality?

What seems to be often misunderstood is that automation isn’t a sweeping change that businesses undergo to replace their existing workforce with. Instead, it is done in what Booth describes as ‘baby steps,’ something that Altus actively advises for its customers. “We’re not automating to get rid of people, we’re automating so that the labour that we do use can be better utilised,” Booth says.

In Booth’s experience in the industry: “Whilst some low skilled labour has certainly been replaced by robots in certain predicaments, there’s a lot of stories of people developing themselves into coders, people becoming maintenance engineers, becoming service technicians… jobs of a higher level.

“Whenever we’ve put automation into a company, the headcount of that company doesn’t suddenly decrease.

“Every site needs people, it’s just that as you automate, these people get different roles, but the headcount remains the same.”

More often than not, what happens when automation occurs is that workers’ functions are changed into better-fitting roles. As Booth says: “A hand solder might turn into a robot expert, they may be trained in how to maintain it. They might be trained in how to programme it. They might just move into a different part of the facility.”

This is more of the reality that occurs when automation takes place at a company, and whilst there are certainly outliers amongst this, the general narrative of ‘robots are replacing’ people isn’t so black and white.

The need for automation in ‘undesirable roles’

Another often overlooked aspect is the type of roles that automation is often being used to fill. These roles are typically quite undesirable in nature, that don’t offer much more than a monotonous task and a dead end for workers.

In some instances, these roles are so undesirable that automation is the only way to get them completed. “Some sites I’ve visited have had upwards of 20 job vacancies. If there are 20 job vacancies it’s a pretty tell-tale sign that it’s not something that’s very desirable to do,” explains Booth. Quite often these are the roles that automation is filling, and “if we [here in the UK] had the labour to do it, there wouldn’t be so many openings,” Booth points out.

What does the future hold for automation?

Overall, it seems as if automation is the next step for manufacturing, the considerable benefits it has to almost every process being invaluable to not just the manufacturer, but the buyers and sellers as well.

Booth had a fantastic analogy for the future of automation: “Before the calculator existed to automate calculations, we used abacuses. I don’t think there are many people in the world that don’t think the calculator was a good idea. The calculator didn’t remove us from mathematics, it just made us more efficient in what we did.”

But Booth remained humble regarding automation moving forward: “Everyone talks about lights-out factories; I don’t see this being the future quite yet. There will always be a need for interfaces with humans doing certain jobs, but I think that in the future we will certainly see the conventional assembly lines automated consistently.”

As a final note, Booth said: “The biggest step for companies in the near future is probably automating through software. Software offers the capabilities to automate and increase areas such as traceability and overall efficiency.”

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