robots re/make: manufacturing’s entry into the innovation age

in rethinking robotics by Jim Lawton

Technicians working on assembly line in electronics manufacturing plant.

Earlier this month I spoke at the 25th annual Industry Week’s Best Plants Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. More than 700 attendees from all segments of manufacturing gathered to hear about what’s hot in manufacturing, who’s leading the way in operational performance and what the factories of the future will look like.

These folks get it. They work in an industry where raw materials are transformed into real products that are used every day. Phones, cars, washing machines, combines, planes, and more. There’s no app for what they do.

But the energy was palpable. Pat Panchak, editor in chief, Industry Week, summed it succinctly, when she said “It’s an exciting time to be in manufacturing.”

I could not agree more. I was excited by conversations I held with people in a variety of roles – academia, consulting and end users – around their reactions to the event and the content presented on advanced technologies – from robots and big data to 3-D printing. What struck me was the overarching current in the conversations that reflected a concrete move from sheer curiosity to an interest in the real-world applications and implementations.

Presentations by some of the best and brightest like Jabil Circuit, John Deere  Boston Scientific and more illustrated how quickly technology is helping manufacturing to evolve–today. The goals are varied, but increasingly productivity and efficiency are not enough. Visionaries are recognizing that innovation and creativity must also be a part of the mix.

For our customers, that means people are free to do the kind of work they are best at doing. And robots must be capable of doing the rest. When robots are able to perform tasks in the ways humans do, are not stymied by variability in the environment and can change tasks frequently, then humans can spend their time improving processes, identifying new opportunities for innovation and solving larger problems.

This model combining humans and robots, efficiency and innovation will be the hallmark of manufacturing’s innovation age. Exciting, indeed.


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.

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