I have been surrounded by a host of automated technologies in recent weeks: robots, cobots, flexible manufacturing systems, mechanised machine tool loaders, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) autonomous mobile robots, (AMRs) and intelligent vision systems, all displaying incredible ingenuity in moving and making things without the merest hint of human intervention.
However, ever since I can first recall being made aware of industrial robots (does anyone remember that famous TV advert ‘Hand built by robots’ for the lumpy looking Fiat Strada?) there has always been the debate: do robots create jobs or cost them?
Until now I have been fairly sceptical about the ‘creates more jobs’ side of the equation – and I certainly still have my concerns, especially with the rapid development of artificial intelligence and machine learning (I am sure there is a smart algorithm out there that can write this comment for me – and probably better too).
However, when it comes to automation in the production engineering world I am beginning to be won over. Not only because it makes more economic sense for companies, but also because the nature of jobs in this sector is changing.
As most of us know, producing parts these days is more a case of using software skills and programming expertise rather than standing by an unguarded machine tool dodging chips and swarf as it pings off a workpiece.
I admit there are still a few old-style grubby engineering job shops out there, but these are a dying breed. Most facilities I visit are clean, well maintained, high-tech environments and the industry itself is keen to focus on this development in order to attract younger people into the industry.
This is only natural; nobody wants a mundane and mind-numbing occupation if they can avoid it, and most of the young people leaving our training establishments, whether it’s colleges or universities, are well-versed in the latest production software and technology; more used to picking up and interacting with a tablet than writing on a piece of paper and sticking a pencil behind their ear.
If robots, cobots and automation technology are better at selecting, loading, monitoring and unloading a machine tool or supporting a manufacturing cell, that has to be an improvement for human beings working in manufacturing. It leaves the more challenging, exciting and creative tasks to those with fingers and thumbs – and more importantly brains – so they can literally avoid the heavy lifting and assist and conceive smarter, leaner and more productive ways of production.
So, it’s undoubtedly time for UK manufacturing to grasp automation with both hands (robotic or otherwise) if it wants to appeal to our brightest, keenest and most inventive new minds.