How Automation Went From Buzzword to NecessityBy Diego Garza | Mon, 06/20/2022 - 11:00
It was the summer of 2019 and our lives were full of events and “unprecedented challenges” (who would have expected what was coming around the corner?). Back then, headlines and coffee discussions were dominated by the tragic Notre Dame Cathedral fire, President Trump’s impeachment and Hurricane Dorian. Sociopolitical tensions came and went with no clear igniter, and life, peace and health were taken for granted in the midst of a bull market that had been running for more than a decade.
Back in the day, digital transformation was seen as a long (optional) journey that the most audacious companies were starting to embark on and the world felt that things were only set to grow and improve from there — mimicking the typical exuberant feeling just before the end of a bull cycle.
Fast forward to March 2020, when the World Health Organization officially declared a pandemic and our lives and priorities took a blow to the jaw. No industry was even slightly prepared for what came next: waves of uncertainty hit the world’s structures one after the other, literally throwing around companies as they looked for solutions to challenges we have never faced in our lifetimes. Flexibility and adaptability became a must. Technology was no longer optional. Health was no longer taken for granted. Our proudly “resilient” global supply chain system (a byproduct of years of globalization) was easily brought to its knees, showing cracks that have never appeared before and virtually halting the world’s torrid pace. World peace was challenged by sociopolitical tensions and hashtags started to be dominated by nationalism, inflation, and recession.
The world changed once again and “digital transformation” and “automation” quickly morphed from buzzwords to necessities and eventually to survival tools for most companies. No room for optionality was left.
In today’s aftermath, companies of every size are facing several unprecedented challenges and changes, both technical and cultural, that are a result of the accelerated (and even forced) digital transformation in practically all industries. These past two years are proof that technology can and is evolving at a torrid pace, and, more often than not, these developments translate to considerable improvements in people’s lives, from making their day-to-day activities easier to enhancing the complex supply chains that we ultimately all depend on. Businesses all around the world are striving to meet their customers’ ever-changing expectations and implementing robotics in their operations is one of the key ways they are achieving this.
Robots are a clear example and are everywhere (although not visible to everyone). Whether shaped as the more popular humanoid robots, which have always taken center stage in popular culture due to their human-like forms, or industrial-level automation that streamlines the manufacturing processes for most of the products you have in your home (it is estimated that the world will have US$44 trillion in annual manufacturing output by next year), the reality is that robots are already an everyday occurrence. And their applications are limitless. As of 2022, the size of the global industrial market for robots is approximately US$55 billion, according to Statista, and this number is expected to keep growing in the coming years, which means that robots are more affordable and available than ever. Companies have the perfect opportunity to take advantage of this now.
What does this mean for the future of companies? And more importantly, how does this translate to a positive change for society as a whole? We have all been exposed to preconceived notions that have made us skeptical about what the impact of robots in the world looks like. However, the truth is that since the introduction of Unimate, the first industrial robot that worked on an automotive industry assembly line in the 1960s, the benefits that this technology offers far outweigh the challenges it creates.
Companies are constantly tackling demands from all stakeholders, from higher productivity and faster operations to better safety and more opportunities for workers. Automation can help on all these fronts. For example, robots can perform repetitive jobs with more accuracy and quality than a human being, which saves time and money. In a recent success case, leading auto manufacturer Audi, in partnership with Intel, worked on improving the quality-control process for the welds on its vehicles through algorithms that transform factory data into valuable insights. This perfect mix of AI and robotics caused a 30 percent to 50 percent reduction in labor costs, and it will be used for other parts of the manufacturing process within the company, such as gluing and painting. The cost-saving advantages of these types or innovations are endless.
These developments also mean a brighter future for a company’s workforce. Far from taking away jobs from the population, the tasks that robots undertake can complement the work of professionals and it allows workers to further develop their talent and make their contributions to the company more valuable. Now more than ever, companies need highly specialized talent who can develop the technologies of the future. With AI and robotics offering more precision, efficiency and safety to their day-to-day tasks, their talent and expertise can be concentrated in more strategic and critical responsibilities.
This intense technological shift we are experiencing does not come without challenges. The availability of highly advanced robotics technology is more evident now than it was before but we are still far from a world of evenly-distributed technology and opportunities. While some industries have been reaping the advantages of robotic activity in their supply chains, as in the cases of the automotive and electronics sectors, which are mainly concentrated in Asia, Europe, and the US, other industries are still pondering the cost benefits of this next step in their digital transformation.
Today, although digitalization is no longer optional and neither is business transformation, industries are still experiencing the results of inflexible and compromised supply chains and a lack of technology. Products are still being developed (or even modified after production) based on what is available and not on what is desirable. Shipping costs and availability are already impacting seasonal product sales, causing inventory build-ups worldwide (with multiannual impacts). And qualified talent has quickly become one of the scarcest resources in the world. For these reasons, our goal as an industry should be to help ensure that all sectors, without exception, are given the tools to fully take advantage of the technology that is being created and that improve daily operations and lives. Robotics, combined with qualified workforces and AI, have the ability to solve incredibly complex problems in society and enable exponential growth for companies. When combined with other crucial technological trends that we at Intel like to call superpowers, which include pervasive connectivity, ubiquitous computing, and cloud-to-edge infrastructure, it has the potential to transform industries and improve the lives of every person on Earth. We are living in a new chapter of human development and it is our responsibility to make sure that these innovations reach as many people in the world as possible.