ROBOTS and automation are now responsible for everything we eat, drink, wear and use. They control our energy supplies and waste disposal, and they design and assemble electronic devices beyond the capacity of human dexterity and visual acuity. Agriculture and industries no longer look like some open-air idyll or factory nightmare: both are highly automated and controlled production lines of unwavering efficiency and quality from raw materials to final delivery. Vehicles and transport systems have also been transformed by largely unseen robotics along with warehousing, storage and delivery chains.
Many people are now far removed from supply chains and do not perceive this march toward fewer people, greater automation, more machine intelligence, greater efficiency, more products at a lower price, and far better quality. But it is a self-perpetuating mantra and runs parallel with office and business process automation, with far-reaching consequences for society. So if robots are doing such a great job, why do we employ people? The answer is simple: because they are cheaper.
There are still an awful lot of things robots cannot do, and people are generally much better at dealing with the unexpected, the highly variable, and general problem-solving. However, most well-defined, repetitive, precise and boring tasks are the domain of machines, and we are all happy to hand over that responsibility. In many areas they also contribute to the collection of data employed to hone processes. It is not by accident that Napa Valley has gone from a backwater of the wine industry to one of the leaders in a relatively short time; it is by automation and control.
Supply chains can be seen as boring and repetitive, requiring an unstinting focus and a resilience to tedium. But we all depend upon them to an increasing degree. Without robotics and the automation of these chains, human populations would be far smaller, lives would be greatly diminished by limited supplies of lower-quality food, clothing and products. And people’s work experiences would look far more like the grinding repetitive lives of the industrial 1950s.
The next steps in this are going to be the most exciting as industrial and process redevelopment based on new nano and bio technologies close the gap between office, production line and delivery mechanism. At the head of the change list are smart materials, with printing and programming of shape and functionality complemented by far more distributed and localised production for some items. How come? The de-industrialisation of the West and industrialisation of south-east Asia is not a cycle in stasis. It will roll until the planet sees a new distributed and less wasteful model that can also afford effective sustainability.
So we might contemplate a virtualised end point where many industries, if we can call them that anymore, share distributed people and resources to supply the needs of populations locally. This would see a vast reduction in shipping products and a swing towards shipping designs and the necessary raw materials of production as well as the local sourcing of foods grown by industrial-scale facilities. It has happened before. The music and movie industries are good examples, but 3D printing offers that same sharing, broadcasting and downloading.
Of course some of our bigger manufactured items, such as ships, planes, cars, machines, appliances, will require big assembly plants. But again we should observe that these producers are really system integrators of components such as motors and engines, control systems and other functional/passive parts shipped in by many different suppliers. No one does it all anymore and many do surprisingly little manufacturing.
Supply chains have never been static entities; they have always adapted to industrial and societal need. But the number, type and speed of changes is about to go up a gear with the arrival of new production and supply technologies. ?
Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technology officer at BT
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