Ever since the first industrial robots started work several decades ago, the technology has continued to develop. Artificial intelligence is the next step to further improve productivity and efficiency, with “lights-out manufacturing” – operating with no humans on site – being the ultimate goal for some.
One of the world’s first lights-out factories is a FANUC plant in Japan which produces 5,000 robots a month. “The robots build themselves, test themselves and inspect themselves,” explains Forbes.
AI in manufacturing is growing very rapidly: the global market was worth $513.6m in 2017 and is expected to reach $15.3bn by 2025, growing at a compound annual rate of 55.2%, according to a report from Allied Market Research.
But you only have to look at Tesla to see that automation and AI will not eradicate the human workforce any time soon.
The car maker’s new manufacturing facility in Fremont, California, was designed to be fully automated. Yet instead of producing 5,000 vehicles every week, the facility only managed 2,000 because the robots actually slowed down production instead of speeding it up, Harvard Business Review reports.
To tackle this problem, the company stopped production to address the bottlenecks, created additional capacity, and hired hundreds of workers to revamp production processes, train (and retrain) the robots, and to oversee production.
“Excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake,” CEO Elon Musk tweeted. “Humans are underrated.”
Many of Tesla’s new employees have high-tech skills in robotics and analytics in addition to more traditional skills such as equipment maintenance and production management. And all these skills will be needed in the factory of the future.
In other words, while manufacturers around the world will continue to embrace automation and AI, their success will ultimately depend on humans.