is automation holding manufacturing back?

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

No one in manufacturing would say that robotics hasn’t been a boon to the industry. When the technology arrived on the scene 30+ years ago, large-scale manufacturing was revolutionized. The productivity, efficiency and scale of the kind of work that could be done by machines changed everything. 

But is it as useful today as it once was?

The reality is that that some of the automation in place today is actually holding manufacturing back.  Fixed automation can’t problem solve in real-time. It can’t change tasks without significant reprogramming by automation experts. It can’t move or be easily moved to accommodate production configuration changes. In some cases, its work has to be double-checked by humans for quality.

The fixed automation that revolutionized manufacturing in the 20th century was the right thing for the time. But more and more, these large-scale, multi-million dollar investments aren’t up to the task for what manufacturers need today to be competitive. Companies like Toyota are actually pulling back on robotics as they realize that it simply isn’t possible for automation to do everything.

What’s missing? What manufacturers are realizing now is that skilled human labor is essential to real innovation, the ability to respond quickly and accurately to changing market conditions and consumer behavior and to keep a competitive edge.

I don’t know a manufacturer who thought that robots would ever replace all humans in production, but I know a few who readily admit that the industry may have taken automation too far. As in everything, we’re learning about balance.

It’s that balance that drives us here at Rethink Robotics. We’re looking to tear down the walls between robots and humans, with a new breed of robots that are smaller, more nimble, trainable and flexible.  We’re enabling the model that embraces the reality that humans bring skills that only humans have: cognition, judgment, problem solving, etc. and delivers the robots that can do the rest.

In my next post, I’ll show you how and why it works. 


About the Author

Jim Lawton

Jim had a choice upon graduating from Tufts University – chase a dream as a concert pianist or become part of the inaugural Leaders for Manufacturing Program at MIT. He chose the latter– dedicating his career to developing and delivering innovative solutions that improve the business of manufacturing. Internally at HP, and then at breakthrough start-ups in e-commerce, inventory optimization and supply chain risk management, Jim’s never once looked back. His charter today: capture the power of data and analytics to push the standard for world-class manufacturing higher—once again.

2 comments on this article

Sally Applin June 11, 2014 at 3:30 pm

What you are describing that fixed automation cannot do, but humans can, is take “agency.” Agency enables us to make free will choices about what we want to do, and it is what humans have that give us the initiative to creatively solve problems. Fixed automation has programmed paths that only have as much agency as they are programmed to have. Since mostly that programming doesn’t happen in the work context, the potential paths to solve problems are limited.

One of the errors in business practices has been to remove agency from workers in favor of processes that can streamline a diverse workforce, but leave people feeling that they don’t have agency in the channel to problem solve.

What happens then is what Appiin and Fischer call “Covert Agency,” people take initiative to solve problems outside of the scripted process and most times larger corporations never know that the process has been changed – they only see the result of the change and they have a false sense that their processes are working, when in fact they are actually broken, but being patched in real time by worker agency.

I saw the rethink robot at O’Reilly Solid a few weeks ago. I loved it. I thought it had real potential to provide an agency based solution to the problems that Dr. Fischer and I describe in our paper. By moving the programming out to where the context happens and by enabling the workers to do the programming of their robot tools, you are enabling their agency and that of the robot, by proxy.

You can read more here:

Applin and Fischer (2013) Watching Me, Watching You. Process Surveillance and Agency in the Workplace,
(IEEE Conference on International Symposium on Technology and Society (ISTAS 13) Toronto, Canada, June 2013)

IEEE official version is here:

Eric Foellmer

Eric Foellmer June 11, 2014 at 9:37 pm

Thanks, Sally – we appreciate your input and the additional reference material.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *