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Will Custom Machine Automation Replace Humans?

Since the first machine automation robots appeared on manufacturing shop floors workers have been asking if they’ll soon be replaced by a robot. Based upon what transpired in the last five years and our experience at Summit Engineered Automation, the answer to this oft-asked question is more nuanced than a yes or no.

Yes, PwC predicts that by the mid-2030s, up to 30% of jobs could be replaced by custom machine automation, but the reality is it will depend on the industry. According to Forbes, “Technology advancements will contribute to more jobs lost to automation, but there will remain many industries and workflows that will need humans. Of course, the manufacturing industry is most prone to worker job loss due to automation advances. Most automated machines we design and deploy will save our customer’s labor. A customer went from two machines that produced a part every 20 seconds and took six people to run, to a single machine operated by a solo technician that makes a part every 7.5 seconds.

But even the most advanced machine automation systems will need to be operated or managed by at least one person. Indeed, “Machines can automate certain behaviors and tasks, but they don’t have the cognitive skills and critical thinking ability needed to execute subtle or complex actions,” says Forbes. And this includes machines powered with the best artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities.

AI greatly expands automation capabilities

AI is powering more machine automation systems, and some jobs are being lost to more sophisticated robots, but not a lot. Reports Slate, “In 2020, economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo found that each new industrial robot deployed in the United States between 1990 and 2007 replaced 3.3 workers, even after accounting for the positive economic effects of more productive firms. It was a small impact—one worker in 1,000—but very real.”

However, we also know that automation machines are ideal for performing rote, boring tasks. Humans aren’t ideally suited for high-volume manufacturing. In 2016 Xbox and iPhone manufacturer Foxconn replaced 60,000 line workers with robots but still employs 50,000 people to manage and operate its sprawling factories.

Conversely, when banks deployed ATMs by the thousands in the 80s and 90s, the total number of bank tellers actually increased. That’s because reduced labor costs allowed banks to open more branches, says Slate.

The wildcard in the question “Will custom machine automation replace humans?” is more dependent on advances in the field of artificial intelligence than any other factor. AI technology is being adopted throughout the enterprise to provide efficiency, productivity gains, and numerous other benefits. But AI-enabled machine automation isn’t sophisticated enough yet to replace legions of workers. For now, workers and machines have more of a symbiotic relationship than something that’s purely competitive.

Or, as cognitive automation experts speculate, “The more we consider AI and the automation of complex decision-making processes, the more we realize that people and machines each have their strengths and weaknesses. We can leverage our positive qualities to maximize productivity, efficiency, innovation, and financial results by cooperating. But by dividing our work, we limit possibilities for mutual growth and achievement.”

For guidance in addressing the future of custom machine automation, reach out to our team at Summit Engineered Automation to preserve your human capital while still optimizing your business.

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