The age of automation

What happens when the industrial age converges with the information age? The automation age.

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First we had the agricultural age, then the industrial age and more recently the information age. I’m declaring the next era the automation age. You heard it here first. I figure that if I get out in front, I can take credit for the concept and if I’m wrong, who will remember.

Expressed as an equation: The industrial age + the information age = the automation age.

In part, what got me thinking about automation is that I’m preparing to fly to Park City, Utah, this weekend to attend Supply Chain Reset, the materials handling and logistics conference sponsored annually by HK Systems . If you haven’t attended this event, put it on your calendar for next year. This will be my fourth or fifth trip, and each year I learn something new to think and write about in the following months. 

Last year, I attended presentations on robotic materials handling by Axium Industrial Automation and automatic guided vehicles by Canadian Tire. Both sessions led to stories in the magazine. More importantly, they led me to think about those technologies differently.

So why the age of automation. It feels like the time is right; beyond a gut feeling, it seems as if a number of events are converging to bring a renewed attention to automation.

For starts, the technology works. I’m sure there will always be the implementation that blows up spectacularly for a variety of reasons. But, in general, I think that when automation is applied in the right situation, it works today. To a large degree, that’s the result of the convergence of better computing, processing and software with hardware.

For another, the price points work. Moore’s Law is impacting the cost of industrial automation just like it has impacted the cost of video gaming systems, big screen TVs, cell phones and laptop computers. As one consultant pointed out in a robotics story I wrote in August, the cost of a robot now approaches the cost of labor on a one-to-one basis. Smart carts and other stripped down AGVs are cost competitive with lift truck operations without going to three shifts.

Last, and I don’t think we can underestimate this, is an aging workforce that will soon be unable or unwilling to put in an 8-hour shift of manual labor coupled with a generation of workers that is either not interested in factory and warehouse work, aren’t available in sufficient numbers in the geographies that make strategic sense for distribution, or don’t have the skills required to execute more sophisticated distribution strategies.

I will concede that Modern sees the best of the best when it comes to our case studies, but increasingly I’m seeing distribution centers looking for ways to bring automation that was once restricted to the plant into their operations.

That’s what I’m going to be looking for next week in Park City. 

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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