Robots + Humans Teaming to Create Future with Lights Out Manufacturing: Retool, Retrain, Restart– New Age Automated Factory…

The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.  ~Warren G. Bennis

The term ‘lights out’ has been used to describe fully automated factories. Human hands never touch the products during the manufacturing process. IBM already has a keyboard assembly factory in Texas that is already totally ‘lights out’. A few engineers and technicians are on-site to support the machines producing computer keyboards.

People drive trucks up to the factory doors, delivering raw materials and picking up finished products. The factory operates 24/7 with down time only for scheduled maintenance or repair. At a dinner in Silicon Valley last year, President Barack Obama reportedly asked Steve Jobs what it would take to bring iPhone manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. to which Jobs replied, “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”

The late Steve Jobs was right. Even though advances in automation, 3-D printing, and the rising costs of labor in China will cause manufacturing to return to U.S., we won’t need the millions of factory workers we needed in the past. That’s because manufacturing jobs we need filled today are different from the ones we sent abroad. The new manufacturing will create new types of jobs. The one thing we can be sure about is that we will require a workforce with much different skills and education than what was required for the manufacturing jobs of yesteryear.

The companies and countries that can attract, develop, and retain the highest skilled talent, those that innovate to stay ahead of competition, and those that can find clean energy strategies and effective energy policies. With competition increasing for so many resources and capabilities– and with the prosperity of nations hanging in the balance– policymakers must be actively looking for the right combination of trade, tax, labor, energy, education, science, technology, and industrial policy levers to generate the best possible future for their citizens…

In the article “The Future of the Manufacturing Industry” by Tiffany Misrahi writes: Manufacturing is no longer what it was in the 19th century; it’s not dirty or reserved for blue-collar workers. Think of the high-tech and innovative products now manufactured around the world, like iPhones or Dyson vacuum cleaners. Indeed, modern manufacturing contributes to economic growth and raises both the technological stock and skills of a country.  It is the backbone of any industrialized society and still today can be a strategic advantage for countries worldwide. I am not disputing the fact that manufacturing has become less strategically important for some countries.

The facts are there; the U. S. for instance: in the 1950s, 30% of GDP came from manufacturing, compared to 12% in 2008. Nonetheless, I believe, in the next 10 years, manufacturing will regain importance and, as a sector, bring a competitive edge. As countries face high unemployment rates, they are likely to turn to labor-intensive industries, such as manufacturing. The world’s complexity and interconnectedness demand a new type of model and solutions for the industrial sector.

The new model for manufacturing must come from a multi-stakeholder dialogue accounting for all relevant issues affecting the sector, including; the rising middle class in emerging economies, innovation, job creation and skills gaps, trade policy, supply value chain evolution, environmental impact and more.

In the article Making the Future– How Robots and People Team-Up to Manufacture Things in New Ways” by ‘The Economist’ writes: Back in the 1980s, when America’s carmakers feared they might be overwhelmed by Japanese competitors, many in Detroit had a vision of beating their rivals with ‘lights-out’ manufacturing. The idea was that factories would become so highly automated that the lights could be turned off and the robots left to build cars on their own. It never happened. Japan’s advantage, it turned out, lay not in automation but in lean-production techniques, which are mostly people-based. Many of the new production methods in this next revolution will require fewer people working on the factory floor.

Thanks to smarter and more dexterous robots, some ‘lights out’ manufacturing is now possible. Yet manufacturing will still need people, if not so many in the factory itself. All these automated machines require someone to service them and tell them what to do. Some machine operators will become machine-minders, which often calls for a broader range of skills. If people on the factory floor or in workshops are provided with easy-to-use robots they can become more productive, says Rodney Brooks. Bring together these new robots with innovative manufacturing technologies, and you could get a manufacturing renaissance.

However, manufacturing revolutions never happen overnight, but this one is already well under way. There is enough transformative research going on in the biological sciences and nanotechnology to spawn entirely new industries, like making batteries from viruses. Additive manufacturing, like anything else digital, is already becoming both cheaper and more effective. The big breakthrough would be in workflow. The aim would be to build things faster and more flexibly rather than to achieve economies of scale.

In the article What the Robotic Age Means for U.S. Manufacturing by Alyssa Sitig writes: In the last fifteen years, manufacturing in the United States has undergone a fundamental shift. As millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs have been lost to outsourcing and automation, output has steadily continued to grow. And while U.S. manufacturing output has decreased by only 1% since 1990, manufacturing jobs have decreased by over 30% in the same time period. Bottom line– we’re producing more goods as a nation, but we no longer need the same amount of manpower to make it happen.

And the trend shows no sign of slowing down. Since U.S. factories began adopting robotics into their assembly lines, national production has risen over 30%; so it’s not surprising that automation is a natural move for manufacturers looking to stay competitive. Japan was one of the first nations in the world to capitalize on the low overhead of factory robots. As negative population growth drove up wages, Japanese manufacturers turned to automation to cut costs. The nation has already invested over $50 million in programs and currently controls 40% of the total factory robotic population around the world.

By 2025, the Japanese government predicts 15 million manufacturing jobs will be replaced by robots. Germany, on the other hand, is leveraging robotics to grow nation’s manufacturing base and bring factories back home. It’s no coincidence that the country with 43% of Europe’s factory robot population and an export ratio of 63%. Government incentive programs encourage Germany manufacturers to adopt automation and help sustain the nation’s global competitiveness.

With results like this worldwide, it’s not surprising that the U. S. is beginning to take an interest in automation. In the first half of 2011 alone, North America nearly doubled robotic orders, due to heightened demand in U.S. automotive factories. Although some fear that we are in the midst of a robotic takeover, the impact of new technology in the workplace is nothing new.

Consider the job landscape when computers were introduced into the workplace in the 1970s-1980s, secretaries feared their jobs would be taken over by machines that could complete the same tasks quicker and for less money. But in reality, computers enabled administrative assistants to take on more complicated tasks and manage more responsibility than ever before– increasing their earning capacity and value in the workplace.

If history repeats itself (as it commonly does) the transition to a fully automated manufacturing floor is inevitable. According to John Dulchinos; not only is the robotic takeover inevitable, but it is a natural part of a continually advancing society. If you look out far enough, machines are going to win. The human body . . . was not designed to be a factory machine. It was designed to be a thinking machine.”

In the article The Future of Industrial Automation” by Jim Pinto writes:  We cannot figure out future trends merely by extending past trends; it’s like trying to drive by looking only at a rear-view mirror. The automation industry does ‘not’ extrapolate to smaller and cheaper… Instead, future growth will come from totally new directions. Industrial automation can and will generate explosive growth with technology related to new inflection points; nanotechnology and nano-scale assembly systems; MEMS and nanotech sensors (tiny, low-power, low-cost sensors) which can measure everything and anything; and the pervasive Internet, machine-to-machine networking.

Real-time systems will give way to complex adaptive systems and multi-processing. The future belongs to nanotech, wireless everything, and complex adaptive systems. The factory of the future will be small, movable (to where the resources are, and where the customers are). For example, there is really no need to transport raw materials long distances to a plant, for processing, and then transport the resulting product long distances to the consumer. In the old days, this was done because of the localized know-how and investments in equipment, technology and personnel. Today, those things are available globally…

Today’s manufacturing is changing; factories are smarter, safer, sustainable, which is quite the opposite from the public’s perception. We need to embrace manufacturing’s critical role in our economic future. The potential for manufacturing innovation is enormous. Today, control, communications, information, and power technologies are converging to enable the next industrial renaissance.

At the heart of this renaissance are advanced, smart manufacturing technologies that blend the best in people, physical assets, business processes and data, and seamlessly connect the plant floor to the enterprise, supply chain and the customer. These advanced technologies make manufacturing more productive and globally competitive. With smart manufacturing, an entire plant can be optimized. Real-time information flows from machine-to-machine and across production lines.  Smart manufacturing is a growth engine for a sustainable economy. The European Union has already approved 1.2 billion Euros for a new ‘Factories of the Future’ research program as part of their economic recovery plan.

The European Union is ahead of U.S. in the race to re-industrialize their manufacturing base… The U.S. can stay in the race by re-thinking the role of manufacturing, investing in advanced automation technologies and re-tooling plants into smart factories that become the execution machine for innovation. Smart manufacturing can be an important factor in the growth of the U.S. economy. However, high technology alone cannot provide all these benefits without a skilled and knowledge workforce who are continually being updated and trained to get the full benefits that each new technology can provide.

The U.S. cannot regain global economic leadership unless there is a continual renewing and honing the skills of current and future employees, such that they can work successfully in the modern manufacturing environment. It’s a new age and the days of the dirty, noisy manufacturing assembly lines with relatively unskilled workers are gone…

Factories of the future will be highly sophisticated with smart robotic-based machines requiring highly skilled, well-trained knowledge workers who will design, develop, install, and support the automated factory of the future…

Countries cannot afford to stop making stuff with the hopes that it can compete by just doing design and innovation. Being competitive, globally, requires a tight intertwining of design, innovation, and manufacturing.