Talking about robots is just plain fun. However, the idea that robotic technology will completely control the supply chain is still straddling the line between myth and reality.
We asked the EBN community to weigh in about whether the move to automation will ever translate into a completely automated supply chain. Our readers were pretty evenly split. A little more than 40 percent said it would, but 38 percent disagreed. And almost one in five respondents said it would happen — but not until 2050.
In comparing our straw poll with the realities of the market, the results are not shocking. It's clear that robotics and automation are on the rise. Between 2008 and 2012, robot sales increased 9 percent on average per year, according to the International Federation of Robotics. TechSci Research said in a report released in April (subscription required) that the global industrial robotics market will reach $37 billion by 2018.
“Robotics is the next big disruptive technology with continuously increasing demand for both industrial and service robotics,” the report said. “Robots are used in a wide variety of tasks like assembling in electronic and automobile sectors, machining of metals, plastic parts and handling of all kinds of production capabilities, etc.”
The automotive industry, which is searching for cost savings, has proven the most enthusiastic adopter. The United States, China, Japan, South Korea, and Germany are currently the major markets for this technology. Markets are also emerging in places like Brazil, India, Russia, and Indonesia.
These shifts raise concerns for many. For example, what does automation mean for the employment landscape? “I think we've reached a tipping point and that there will be much less need of people from now on, in manufacturing,” community member JVerity said during a recent EBN chat. “There will be an imbalance between super-efficient manufacturing and masses of people not paid enough to buy the output of all that.”
That sentiment was shared by other members of our community. “I am already seeing consequences of this in unemployment increasing everywhere especially Europe and Asia,” tech4people said.
Foxconn International, which manufactures iPhones and iPads for Apple, has been at the center of this particular conversation. The saga started in 2010, when the company raised wages in its factory after a spate of employee suicides. Now labor woes have pushed the company to embrace automation. Caixin Online reports:
The company's president, Terry Guo, said in 2010 that it would produce 1 million Foxbots, a mechanical arm researched and developed by Foxconn to perform dull and dangerous jobs. The robots would be implemented from 2012 to 2015 to increase the rate of automation and productivity.
However, the road to automation has had its share of bumps. Foxconn has produced only 20,000 of its Foxbots to date, and the expenses associated with research and development have mounted.
Perhaps the issue is not whether to automate, but rather how to balance between automation and human work. “Automation isn't necessarily the total answer,” community member Jim O'Reilly said during the chat. “The auto guys do it because the parts are so heavy.” Combining manufacturing innovations with smart application provides a path to cutting labor costs even without total automation.
Where would you draw the lines? How much is too much when it comes to automation? Share your thoughts below, and let's keep the conversation going.