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The limits to automation

07 March 2018

The robot revolution hasn't happened at the pace predicted two decades ago, but it is coming, and rapidly. Computer power, big data, improvement in sensors, vision technology and speech recognition are challenging the role of humans in many professions.

The current demand for robots is three times greater than 10 years ago. The range and type of robots is no longer limited to welding cars or lifting heavy loads. A Panasonic factory with the assistance of robots has been producing two million high-end TVs a month, with only 25 employees.

An added factor is manufacturers re-shoring. This is a reversal of the 20th-century policy of transferring operations to lower labour cost and tax-attractive countries. In the future, AI robots will make it attractive for corporations to return to their original base.

The surge in robot sales has seen the emergence of four major suppliers, two Japanese, Fanuc and Yaskawa, the Swiss/Swedish concern ABB and Germany's Kuka AG.

Recognising this, in 2015, China devised a plan to become the leader in several industry sectors, including medical, aerospace, energy, and robotics. The Robotics Industry Development Plan is a five-year plan to rapidly expand its industrial robotic sector. China wants to be able to manufacture at least 100,000 industrial robots per year by 2020 and for the majority of robotic orders in China to be fulfilled by indigenous manufacturers. To further the goal, electronics appliance company Midea purchased Kuka.

“China can manufacture simple robots, but nothing like the six-axis models of Japan, Germany, and the US,” says Zi Yang, a China analyst from the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC. “It’s hard to close the gap, mainly because of lack of innovativeness, weak intellectual property laws and government-led projects that focus on quantity over quality.”

Even today, much of the UK’s media coverage on the subject focuses on the threat that automation poses to jobs, as opposed to the productivity benefits. Studies suggest that automation could affect one in five jobs in the UK, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean the technology will replace human workers. The UK Government’s Made Smarter Review, finds that a greater uptake of industrial digitalisation technologies (IDTs) could represent as much as £455 billion growth for manufacturing in the next decade, creating 175,000 jobs and increasing productivity by 25%.

Automated equipment is capable of extremely complex and challenging tasks that humans cannot possibly achieve. However, there are still things that humans can do far better than robots can.

One way that humans triumph over robots is in their capability to make decisions. Additionally, because humans can think and act more flexibly, they are often better problem solvers. Moreover, many industries rely on creativity, something that would be missed in a company run entirely by robots.
Maybe one of the first decisions that the humans could make is to increase investment in robotics?