Interested in exploring the journey from automation to autonomy? 

All the drivers are in place. The unprecedented global labor shortage, the sky-high consumer demand, the advanced technology capabilities and the willingness of businesses and VCs to invest are all combining to transformative effect. The world is primed and ready to accelerate the adoption of robotics and automation. Any remaining doubts I might have had about this were blown away by the heightened mood of anticipation at the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) Business Forum in Orlando earlier this month. Trust me, the industry is ready to make things happen!

This is an exciting and pivotal moment for all of us. At the heart of the issue is the fact that the ROI calculation for industry automation has totally changed. The global workforce crunch means that automation is no longer a nice to have – it is an absolute commercial necessity, sooner rather than later.

And let’s also consider the attitudes of Millennials and their successor cohort Generation Z. They simply don’t want the physically demanding, repetitive in nature, and often harsh-environment jobs. We don’t want it for them either! My message (which gained lots of positive social media traction) is to let humans do what they are best at – being creative, innovative, inspiring problem solvers. Robots should do they are best at – carrying out repetitive tasks efficiently and productively.

In that spirit, I want to use this blog to set out my top-line thoughts on how technology providers and end-user companies in warehouse logistics, distribution and manufacturing can cut through the complexities to propel their adoption strategies. Senior decision makers from technology providers right across the robotics and automation value chain and end-users were present at A3’s business forum. Conversations were rich and engaging.

AI as a critical differentiator

Whatever the background of attendees, there was universal agreement that we have an incredible opportunity ahead of us. The feeling cut right across all business and technology interests, from motor providers to artificial intelligence. Fellow event speakers included the thought leader Dr Andrew Ng, founder of Landing AI. Entrepreneur Andrew – who was co-founder of Google Brain and former chief scientist at Baidu – stressed the importance of AI as a critical differentiator. AI, which he described as ‘automation on steroids’, would remain no more than hype until it gets properly adopted in industrial applications.

As you’d expect, there was plenty of discussion spilling over from the set-piece presentations into the informal face-to-face networking. Talking points included the need for open solutions that allow interoperability; the increasing use of simulated environments to accelerate automation projects; and the vital importance of nailing down a great talent strategy. (Yep, talent competition continues to be hot!)

But the real big takeaway for me is that we’re no longer talking about technology for the sake of technology. There’s a real desire now to actually address fundamental problems. We all look at the labor shortage and the huge demand and we see both crisis and opportunity, which are the two faces of the same coin. I’m focused on opportunity, and relishing the collaborative spirit evidenced at A3. There’s a real desire for purposeful alignment across industries which for me is truly inspiring.

Labor offshoring to cheaper economies has pretty much had its day, and now every company is thinking about reshoring and the need to improve labor conditions. I’ve observed many of these places and they are difficult jobs often in harsh working environments. The workers were asking us to hurry up and bring those robots!

From automation crisis to opportunity

When I talk automation with companies – be that technology providers or end-users – my role is often to flip the coin from crisis to opportunity for them. Let’s face it, there’s still a lot of nervousness out there. Imagine if you are a start-up and you have a big buyer coming along wanting to deploy your technology. Your reaction might be, ‘well I’ve got a great idea most of the time but doesn’t work all the time’.

This is where Cambridge Consultants can help by accelerating the delivery of a mission-critical application with safety, robustness and reliability baked in. You can read more about my advice here: Innovators must take a system thinking approach to scale up successfully. As well as scalability, the blog stresses the need to continue experimentation to advance capability and the importance of system convergence and interoperability.

End users of automation in industries like warehouse logistics, distribution and manufacturing have got plenty of strategic dilemmas to overcome. How, for example, do they make a transformative automation leap while still running their operation? Imagine a busy distribution hub handling millions of packages daily and no space to expand... or a manufacturing line under pressure to fulfill that same high volume of critical orders. Throwing the off switch – even temporarily – would be severely, terminally disruptive to their business and overall supply chain.

We can help set out strategies to find ways to build new applications within operational constraints. There are certainly ways to evolve these systems over time without disrupting current business. Solutions range from fully-automated lights-off operations without humans to semi-automated solutions in congested areas with humans working alongside robots. We have experience helping clients navigate these deployment decisions to achieve their business goals and overcome their current constraints.

These are exciting times, as my visit to the A3 Business Forum proved. If you’re as inspired as I am – and want to talk through any of the topics I’ve covered in more detail – just drop me an email. I’d love to carry on the conversation.

Author
Oli Qirko
President, North America, Cambridge Consultants

Oli has 20 years’ experience of helping leading global corporations to develop breakthrough products and services in a range of markets – from consumer and industrial to logistics and transportation. At Cambridge Consultants, she now partners with Fortune 100 and start-up companies to launch digital transformation and automation initiatives. These leverage global organization capabilities in AI, advanced sensing, robotics and wireless communication. Oli holds a master’s in electrical engineering from WPI and an MBA from MIT. As well as serving on the WPI Engineering Advisory Board, Oli lectures at MIT Sloan School of Management. There, she mentors CXOs and executives on how to manage the most critical and complex organizational challenges in business, technology and global operations.

 

 

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