Posted on November 9, 2019 11:36 am

Robot Factories and The Future

Robotics and automation

There’s something instinctively unnatural about imagining an entire factory floor working away at creating products, cars, computers or anything else without any human interaction. Maybe it’s something to do with our sci-fi representations of robotics over the years and the idea that complete automation is somehow an apocalyptic nightmare where humanity becomes enslaved.

The psychology of it, at least to some of us, is that it feels like the last moments or the end of the road before machines become intelligent or sentient before overtaking humanity and enslaving us all.

That’s almost certainly too dramatic to be useful and doesn’t consider just how normal that scene is in industrialised economies now. Economies like China, America, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, where technology is moving quicker than ever, are full of factories like the one we’ve just thought of.

There’s a pretty well known theory, put forward by Gordon Moore, CEO and founder of Intel, that computer capacity doubles roughly every two years. He came up with it in 1965, it was then called Moore’s Law, and since then it has proved correct almost consistently for over 50 years.

One point is, though, that it wouldn’t have been possible unless we’d managed to get to the point where computers could build themselves. There’s only so much human hands can achieve and the computer chips manufactured these days are so intricate that we’d never be able to hope to create anything like them just by human hands.

So, in order to keep growing as developed economies and countries, and become more productive than ever, we’ve now reached the point where the only way to achieve that is to allow machines to build and maintain themselves.

Factories need people

That being said, whilst the production process is made almost infinitely quicker by getting robots in to do the heavy lifting, factories will always need people to oversee, innovate and come up with the processes to begin with.

For example, in an article for Forbes, Anna-Katrina Shedletsky wrote about how Tesla is still using human brains to come up with most of the new ideas, followed by machines to build.

They’re aiming to create a fully automated factory assembly line where everything is created by machines from the very beginning, but there’s a problem:

“It’s easy to see the logic that it might be easier to design a product to be fully automated from day one. It’s true: you need to design the product with automated assembly in mind in order to ever get there. But the mistake is in thinking that once you’ve built one unit – whether it’s a car or a cell phone – that building millions just means dumping a lot of robots on the line. In actuality, product design is a messy process.”

Who will get there first?

Ok, so the likelihood is that we’ll get over the need for human input at some point in the near future, but who’s likely to get there first? Well it won’t surprise you to hear that it’s probably going to be China.

Just 16 countries are currently responsible for 90% of all industrial robots, with China set to increase their share of that from 39% last year to 45% by the end of 2021. The next biggest robot creator is Japan at just 11%.

It comes with massive risks, though. Firstly, once the entire process is automated it needs maintaining, so the decision needs to be made who’s going to maintain it, will it be other robots? Or a human workforce? With more robots comes more required engineers, and the more complicated it gets the higher skilled the engineers will need to be, is that likely to offset the costs saved by getting rid of all the workers?

Secondly, once all the work force have been replaced by robots, you’ll need to think of an economic solution to having nobody in work. Thinking about it simply, if everybody’s been sacked, who’s going to buy your stuff?

It probably will be quite a few years before we get to the point of fully automated factories, and until then there’s still some pretty fundamental questions that need to be answered.