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June 2014

Article Series: How Can We Automate Responsibly? (Part Six)

This is the sixth article in our series on the positives and negatives of automation. As a manufacturer of automation machinery, we feel that it is our responsibility to be forthright about the controversies and questions that are a part of the industry. We provide these articles in an attempt to have a more informed customer and partner base, and in so doing, we hope to encourage a healthy dialogue on many of these topics. Rachel Greenberg writes marketing and technical content for Automation GT.


How do we minimize the numbers of people displaced?

Many people do not realize that manufacturers can actually choose the degree to which they automate their system. This means that, though a company may conceivably be able to automate their entire process to the point that there are no human beings in a room, it is not always prudent or even fiscally responsible to do so.

Automated processes are specific to a company. That means that each automation process will present the automation designers with unique challenges. Sometimes there will be smart answers that allow the engineers to automate the whole process, but other times a human operator simply makes more sense.

For example, if a toy manufacturer were trying to automate the process of packaging marbles into small mesh bags, they would have a few options in jobs that people could do. For example, they could make a machine that only automates the process of putting a zip tie on the ends of the mesh bag and sealing the bag. This would still require people to put the marbles in the bag, load the bags into the machine, and collect the finished bags of marbles. Or, they could automate the process of putting the marbles into the bag and closing off the end. This will still require someone to load the marbles and the bags into the machine and collect them at the end. Or, they could automate every step of loading and unloading, but still need someone who can move the bagged marbles into boxes for shipping.

As is likely apparent from this example, the variety in the degree to which you can automate is pretty large, especially with more complex processes. In this example, unless the actual manufacturing process for the marbles is connected to the packaging system, it would likely be a poor investment for the manufacturer to purchase a robot just to load the marbles into the packaging machine. For example, maybe their space is limited in such a way that they can’t connect the packaging process to the manufacturing process, or the system would have to bend around a weird corner just to keep the parts connected. This is a case in which a human operator would be an obvious better choice.

Of course, manufacturers will not always face such obvious choices, and may be tempted to automate their entire process if it is feasible. In this case, manufacturers should consider the impact that cutting employees could have on both their employees and on their factory.

If it is feasible for the manufacturer, the manufacturer may be able to offer training programs to help employees move into new positions at higher levels in the company. The company may be able to work with the city or state to support that type of program. As previously stated, large job losses can have a major impact on a small community, and a city may be very willing to help fund this kind of opportunity as a result.

And, though it may not be immediately apparent to a manufacturer, loss of people may have an impact on their business success. Consider this great example from a 2003 episode of This American Life (Chapter Fifteen in the transcript): a manufacturer of hotdogs has just moved his factory from one side of Chicago to a much better, newer building with better equipment on the other side of the city, but for some reason, his hotdogs aren’t coming our right.

It takes the manufacturer a year and a half of playing with the formula and studying all facets of production until he discovers the problem: in moving their location, they lost an employee who would move the uncooked hotdogs from one location to another in the old factory. Because the old factory was laid out oddly, this trip could take some time and would bring him through other parts of the factory. The manufacturer finally realized that this employee’s trip had been causing the hotdogs to warm for a half an hour before they were cooked. It turned out that the employee’s job was actually the extra ingredient in his recipe.

Part 1: Why automate in the first place?

Part 2: Who’s afraid of a little automation?

Part 3: How far up the ladder can automation go?

Part 4: How do we keep people employed? Or shouldn’t we?

Part 5: Addressing the concerns of the displaced

Part 6: How can we automate responsibly?