Robot Colleague: With Automation in Manufacturing and Construction, A New Era is Dawning

Since the beginning of the industrial age, designers and engineers have continuously pushed to the limits of the feasible.

In the past, the conversion of good ideas into marketable products often failed due to the fact that there were no production facilities either at home or abroad.

The rapid progress in areas such as robotics, automation of manufacturing processes, 3D printing, generative design and real-time response to user feedback promises significant relief in the near future. Machines are becoming more and more adaptive, computers more and more powerful, and robots are increasingly becoming competent and intelligent workers.

Specifically, a division of labor between man and machine can be expected: The engineers of the future can give free rein to their creative drive in optimizing their designs. These are then analyzed by robots and implemented as assemblies of 3D printed parts. As utopian as this idea may seem at the moment, within the next ten years it will probably be within reach.

What are the consequences of increasing automation for civil engineers and mechanical engineers? Will it destroy jobs or open up new perspectives?

My answer to these questions is: The robots do not want us to do anything wrong – quite the contrary. They are laying the groundwork for an industrial revolution that will allow more creative and (in both senses of the word) customer-centric manufacturing.

New challenges and opportunities

Currently, designers and engineers have yet to use CAD software to create geometries to verify the practical feasibility of their ideas. In the future, they may be spending their time more reasonably analyzing and creating the problem representation that computers use to calculate new geometric options and help human colleagues develop and improve their designs. At the same time, this will increase the problem potential and create new challenges and opportunities.

Take the example SpaceX. After repeated crash landings, the California space company successfully retrieved two rockets from space in the spring of 2016 and safely landed them on a floating platform in the Atlantic. Imagine that at the beginning of the project the engineers had entered the appropriate parameters in a tool like Autodesk Dreamcatcher. Imagine that the missile-mounted sensors for detecting landing gear loads, hydraulic failures, and other engineering malfunctions could relay the data to the software in real time, thereby realizing rework within a very short time. The computer would then be able to propose better and cheaper options that the engineers might not have come to. Problem solving would no longer be a punctual and static process, but a constant dynamic convergence loop between planning, production and application.

For structural engineers and machine builders, too, generative design and automation of modular and prefabricated construction methods open up new possibilities for solving complex problems. As production and construction converge, components and functional units (including retaining walls, pipe bridges, and curtain walls) are increasingly prefabricated in factories. Thus, civil engineers have their heads and hands free to tackle new, more complicated challenges.

So rosy prospects for highly qualified designers and engineers. But what about factory and construction workers? They will have to adapt to the new realities, be it through retraining for more demanding jobs or moving to growth sectors such as health or education or renewable energy. Robots will replace human labor primarily in areas where monotonous, risky or even impossible tasks are required. In other words: Overall, the foreseeable consequences of automation and robot support are to be evaluated positively.

Meanwhile, there are signs in the US that the end of the flagpole could be reached in terms of emigration and loss of jobs in manufacturing – once the most important pillar of the US economy. Automated factories and innovative companies that specialize in custom-made products are the forerunners of this change.

Adidas Speedfactory robot
At Ansbacher Speedfactory from Adidas, robots accelerate production. Courtesy of Adidas.

Short ways, needs-based production

Automation makes it possible: In the future, goods can be produced at affordable prices in the immediate geographic vicinity of consumers. As a result, more and more manufacturing companies will return to countries that are still dependent on imports from manufacturing meccas such as China.

The renowned Wall Street Journal is also assuming that the advancing automation will prove to be a competitive advantage, especially for small and medium-sized companies. Thanks to the active support of robots, “smaller manufacturers could compete with the large corporations at eye level”. Especially in countries with higher labor costs can be achieved by the use of industrial robots significant savings.

In 2014, the lion’s share of global demand for industrial robots came from five countries: China, Japan, the US, Korea and Germany. However, the race to catch up has long since begun, and in the near future more and more companies around the world will be automating their production facilities to meet demand in their own markets.

The importance that the manufacturing industry once claimed in Western countries, will probably never reach again. However, it is not unthinkable that automation will lead to a renaissance of the manufacturing industry and thus to the creation of new jobs. Because the resulting efficiency gains on the one hand enable the relocation of production sites to the sales countries and on the other hand, the emergence of novel manufacturing branches that specialize in the production of customer-specific products.

For example, under Armor in Baltimore is working flat out on realizing its “Project Glory” concept to promote short-path manufacturing that combines global thinking with local action in an exemplary way: US-made products for US consumers , Brazil-made products for Brazilian consumers, etc.

Similarly, Rickshaw Bags in San Francisco has written an on-site production tailored to individual customer requirements. And at the Speedfactory, which Adidas opened in Ansbach, Germany, in May 2016, robots are to increase the sales rate and sales on the local market by means of tailored production and personalized custom-made products.

Big Bang of creativity

Can the same principles be applied to more complex industrial goods – for example, by using automation techniques such as 3D printing and generative design to rapidly develop and manufacture sophisticated equipment to customer specifications? The consequence would be that more engineers will reach out to a broader range of ideas, experimenting to their heart’s content, and assuming responsibility for making feasible decisions. Because the less time they have to spend on planning and design, the more thoughts they can think about conceptual issues.

I assume that the job prospects for engineers tend to improve with increasing automation. The resulting expansion of what is feasible not only means a broader offering for clients and end users, but also opens up opportunities for more specialists with appropriate training and qualifications to fill emerging niches. In this development, we owe such cool inventions as the climate-positive house of the Australian architectural firm ArchiBlox or the “Taga” folding wheel, from which a child’s buggy can be made in a few simple steps.

Given these diverse opportunities to develop novel products for efficient and cost-effective manufacturing in automated factories, (not only) production engineers are facing exciting times, especially as robots are capable of producing things that people could previously only dream of.

Automation will also lead to mass production becoming a phase-out model. At most global market leaders such as Nike and Mercedes will still be able to generate cost advantages through large-scale production. In concrete terms, this also means that skilled workers are needed for the planning and realization of more sustainable – that is, smaller and more compact, but more efficient factories.

No matter if they put their ingenuity into the service of a large corporation or a start-up – in any case, the engineers of the future will have much more room for thought and experimentation. In a world where robots do the hard work, there are hardly any limits to human imagination.

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