Automation has been a staple in the manufacturing process of virtually every product for decades. Now, thanks to cheaper and more sophisticated technology, we’re starting to see fully automated facilities and factories, without a single human necessary. Robots can create sophisticated machinery to exact specifications to within 0.02mm, and can even create more robots, building a self-replicating, self-perpetuating machine of endless production.
Removing humans from manufacturing makes the process cheaper, faster, and safer. Over the last thirty years, the average price of a robot used in manufacture has fallen by 50%. This price is expected to fall by a further 65% between 2015 and 2025. The cost of maintaining and operating a robot has also fallen in comparison with rising labour costs.
By 2035, roughly 50% of all jobs in the manufacturing, transportation, storage, and retail sectors will be able to be automated. 7% of all jobs in the UK are in danger of being automated over the coming years.
Soon many industries will be post-human, with entire factories able to operate without humans. Some see this as peak productivity, seamless production without human error. The concept of ‘lights out’ manufacturing originated in the 80’s, with business owners dreaming of factories operating entirely in the dark, because not a single person would be in the factory requiring light to see.
Others point out that this kind of aggressive automation will have a massive impact on millions of workers worldwide, who will find themselves out of a job, potentially without transferrable skills to transition into other industries.
While historically, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, we’re moving into a time of unprecedented innovation and change that is being driven wholly by technology. Technology is changing faster than ever, so we really can’t fully predict what the future will look like.
However, we can make some guesses.
By the mid-2020s most production and manufacture will be handled by robots. These will likely look similar to the automated assembly arms seen in automotive factories since the 80s. However, this next generation of robots will have sophisticated sensors, able to perceive the world around them.
They’ll also be capable of learning, optimising their functionality as they go. Robots will become increasingly technically and economically viable to work on an increasing number of roles, thanks to their ability to learn and improve.
Robots will one day be able to run self-diagnostics, and even perform repairs to ensure a longer lifespan. Predictive maintenance will be able to fix problems before they develop, saving businesses thousands in repairs, replacements, and lost time.
Automation will of course have a huge impact on workers all around the world. While some are predicting that their jobs will be shifted into other areas, others are predicting widespread job loss and a massive section of the population unable to find new work.
It’s clear that automation is going to fundamentally change the world of work. Only time will tell if it does so for the better, or if it dooms thousands, if not millions, of people to obsolescence.
Read more about why the automotive industry will always need humans, or learn how the engineering industry will change by 2050.