by Jenny Knodell, IQS Editor
When I’m in the self check-out line at the grocery store, I can’t help but feel a little bitter. In school, I worked part time as a cashier, and here we have this machine that has completely replaced my fine skills. It remembers all the vegetable PLUs, always gives correct change, and even tells me to have a good day. Someday, the cashier may become obsolete, completely replaced by automation equipment. On one hand, that’s a lot of lost jobs—cashier is the most common occupation in the United States, and if they all become automated, there will no longer be a need for humans. On the other hand, though, the grocery store doesn’t have to pay workers, the machines never make mistakes, and the line moves much faster.
This is a common dilemma in many other industries, especially manufacturing. The first assembly lines in the early 1900s were an integral part of the Ford Motor Company’s success. By using machinery to assemble cars instead of manual labor, Ford offered extremely cheap and fast production, and a better and less expensive product. Before long, that idea really took off. How could it not? Using machines instead of labor is safer, faster, easier and takes less effort. Throughout the 20th century, more and more factory jobs were replaced with machines and robots. Today, robotic automation has taken over material handling, assembling, painting, welding, packaging, product inspection and testing, among many other tasks. Robots outperform humans in jobs that require precision, speed, repeatability and endurance. They handle tasks that are dangerous or dirty for workers, and reduce human injury and failure rates. It seems that humans just cannot keep up.
So what has happened to all those blue collar workers that previously were employed at a factory assembly line? Are they starving on the streets? Well, with the integration of machines in manufacturing, new jobs have sprung up. Humans are needed to oversee, maintain, repair and perform routine maintenance on assembly equipment. There are in fact a large number of jobs that will always require a human eye and brain. Workers are needed to program, create, build and improve machines and robots. With these new jobs available to factory workers, they haven’t been replaced, but the scope of their jobs has shifted—they are no longer required for repetitive, mindless positions.
Recently, computer systems working in conjunction with automation equipment, called CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) has opened the door for some amazing manufacturing innovation. CAM systems are able to take almost complete control of production processes. They set tool paths, execute extremely precise and detailed machine operations, keep track of materials and order processing, and can even replace tools when needed. Robot technology, now a standard part of assembly equipment, are reliable, fast, programmable, and are often equipped with sensors that can detect things like defective products. A high volume of customized products at fast rates is now very possible.