Complete automation is no longer an industrial fantasy. Technological advancements have made it not only a possibility but a reality in several commercial sectors, including hospitality and retail, and it’s increasing at a rapid pace.
Robots are proving to do several jobs well and with greater efficiency than people, such as picking, sorting and materials handling. However, there are also obstacles that automated technology is finding challenging to overcome, including how to organize a warehouse to navigate it safely and efficiently and unpredictable physical jobs.
But people haven’t been made obsolete. While automation has clear advantages over human-powered performance, there are many areas it has not mastered and where automation comes with significant drawbacks. It’s simply not possible, or even desirable, for all job sectors to be 100 percent operated by automation.
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How Much Is Possible?
Automation comes with incredible potential, but it’s not yet capable of performing every human-operated task. In a warehouse, people perform many actions, from loading and unloading stock to packing orders to sorting inventory in a single workday—a range that automation has not yet been able to achieve.
Add to this the cost of automation, and it’s easy to see why its performance would need to be flawless to justify its presence in various industries. People are often a more affordable alternative to insufficient and costly machinery.
The current presence of automation in various industries is only the tip of the iceberg. This high-tech performance power may not have flooded the market yet, but the future looks bright for automation in the workplace. It’s essential to consider the feasibility of future automation and the job roles and industries that could be operated with a few advancements and tweaks, as automation has the potential to affect all industries.
Which Industries Can’t Be Automated Yet?
While there is tremendous potential for automation across all industries, several sectors require further advancements in AI, deep learning and robotic technologies before tasks can become fully automated.
Some industries, including education and healthcare, require direct person-to-person contact to develop a trusting emotional bond that robots cannot replicate. Other industries, such as scientific research and software development, need employees with a certain level of expertise that AI cannot learn. Finally, creative industries, such as the development of promotional and marketing materials, music and art, are the least likely to be automated because of the unpredictability of the activities involved in these sectors.
Can Warehouses Be Fully Automated?
In theory, warehouses are prime candidates for complete automation. Statistics show that the hardest areas to emulate are activities that involve decision-making or creativity. Statistics also highlight automation’s area of specialty: predictable physical labor and data collection and processing. Warehouses use these tasks routinely as part of daily operations.
However, exploration into the arena of automated warehouses has produced mixed results and made headlines with major giants in the modern world: Amazon and Tesla.
eCommerce warehouses offer plenty of areas for automation that could improve warehouse design and management. The predictable physical labor required in these warehouses is the perfect area for high-tech solutions, and sophisticated machines can easily replicate repetitive actions.
People in this industry would benefit from these technological systems, but there are still areas of eCommerce that need a human touch. Amazon, the eCommerce giant, has used automation to help transport products within their distribution centers but cannot use them for all warehouse tasks.
Mixing automation with human labor has been the best way forward for Amazon, which says there are simply some tasks that a machine can’t perform, such as picking and packing orders for which robots do not have the dexterity. Using people as part of the workforce has inherent benefits over machines; for example, during busy peak seasons, employing more people is easier than creating more machines that aren’t built to go faster.
There need to be clear boundaries when using people and machines in proximity. In order to work side by side, people need to know they’re safe, and the machines must somehow detect the people’s presence. This has to be incorporated into the overall design. It’s essential to know how to organize a warehouse if people interact with automation in the same space.
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, admitted that using excessive automation was a mistake—quite a bold statement from a high-tech giant.
If any company is going to use complete automation, Tesla would seem like a perfect fit. The progressive company is determined to take us into the future, using the most innovative means possible. Yet, even this company found that people are to be valued for what they can add to the workforce.
Tesla attempted to use hyper-automation for its Model 3 production, hoping to increase its overall efficiency. But implementing this high-tech system highlighted its inherent weaknesses; humans can adjust their performance based on new data, but current AI technology cannot adapt easily to new, unpredictable situations.
Different engineering giants have tried—and mainly failed—to implement automation into their business protocol throughout the decades. So, regardless of the advancements made in automated technology, it’s still hard to say humans have been made redundant in warehouse spaces. Machines may offer efficiency and error reduction, but so far they can’t exactly replicate human performance. According to recent statistics, only 1 percent of plants are using robotics as part of their operation.
If high-powered companies, such as Amazon and Tesla, can’t make automation perfectly fulfill people’s roles, then we still have a way to go in this arena. Although we’ve already witnessed how automation is improving the future of U.S. manufacturing, not all industries are naturally suited to impersonal robotic operations and management.
Industries that require quick thinking and incorporating extra information into work performance aren’t suited for automation at the current time. Technology can create safety issues in the workplace and wouldn’t be suitable for handling hazardous activities that require conscientiousness and quick and spontaneous action. For example, the logistics industry benefits from people monitoring hazardous material transportation, shipping drums and containers.
Warehouses are a prime place to establish automated systems but, right now, this technology is still in the formative stages. Until we figure out how to replicate people’s activity cost-effectively, it won’t be possible to have 100 percent automated warehouses.