As 2023 draws to a close, it’s natural to anticipate what lies ahead in the year to come as we reflect on recent changes. The past year has been characterized by ongoing labor shortages as well as ongoing fascination with the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on a range of industries. How will the current climate affect industrial automation in 2024? Here are the trends to look for:
In 2023, the manufacturing sector has had to cope with the mass retirement of Baby Boomers reaching the end of their careers without a corresponding influx of new talent to replace them. According to a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute, 2.1 million jobs in the industry will remain unfilled by 2030, highlighting the fact that this isn’t an issue expected to change in the foreseeable future.
The adoption of automation will be essential for maintaining production volume while making best strategic use of the existing labor pool. In particular, automating repetitive and dangerous manual tasks in production lines can provide the opportunity to train workers for higher-skill roles such as machine operators and programmers.
In the past, businesses may have resisted automation due both to the high cost of the large, complex equipment needed and the perception that automation was an employee-displacing job killer. However, changes in technology have lowered the barrier of adoption at the same time experience has begun to dispel fears about automation’s impact on the workforce. And, as noted above, a reduced labor pool is forcing the issue in many cases.
The reality is that contrary to popular belief, very few jobs can be fully automated—the International Federation of Robots puts the figure at less than 10%. Instead, new skilled roles are emerging as industries incorporate automation. This shift has the potential to improve job satisfaction and well-being, increasing retention.
It has not been unusual for the implementation of traditional automation technologies to take a year or more from initiation to completion, given long lead times, the complexity of technology involved, and working with multiple vendors. However, modular automation, which separates production lines into modules that can be reconfigured for different purposes, is accelerating design and deployment. Speedier automation enhances efficiency and productivity, as well as improving return on investment.
Modular hardware is also lowering the barrier to entry for smaller-sized businesses that were previously unable to afford the cost of large, complex automation systems. The flexibility and customization inherent in modular systems provides advantages for growing businesses, and it can be expected that smaller manufacturers will increasingly take advantage of this new opportunity.
While much of the buzz around AI has been about its ability (or inability) to conduct research and generate content, in the context of industrial automation it offers promise in multiple ways. First, human-machine collaboration in programming through AI has the potential to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of industrial processes.
AI has also helped to enable the shift from motion-based robotics, in which programmers must explicitly program each movement and the environment must be carefully controlled, to mission-based robotics. This shift of focus gives robots the tools to perceive and adapt to roadblocks and the ability to understand process constraints to accomplish complex tasks. This can enable high-mix, low-volume manufacturers to automate their operations by reducing the need for skilled programmers to design each task.
Finally, machine learning can allow robots to learn and improve from experience. In combination, mission-based robotics and machine learning could be deployed to automatically improve the efficiency and reliability of manufacturing processes by continually incorporating data gleaned from production.
While automation magnifies what your business can accomplish with a limited workforce, successfully implementing automated systems and keeping them running smoothly requires skilled professionals. Finding the talented individuals who will fit your organization’s needs and culture can be difficult in a competitive hiring environment, and the longer you have to wait, the more likely you’ll lose market share to your competitors.
When you can’t afford delay in recruiting technical talent, Integress is your solution. We’re a boutique firm focused on the fields of manufacturing, industrial automation, distribution/materials handling, and IT, with the experience and hiring insight you need to find your ideal candidate and persuade them to join your team. To learn how our high-touch, white-glove service can help you find the automation professionals you need, contact us here.