Integrated industry—Are you in the conversation?
By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor
Automation and integrated industry continued to be a top topic at Hannover Fair 2017, repeated at events throughout the world with the goal of increasing the productivity, competitive performance, and responsiveness of manufacturing. Automation professionals should be at the focal point of these changes. Their understanding of industrial manufacturing and production applications is fundamental for success. They need to be in the conversation, or the future of automation will be defined by the computer industry and information technology (IT) organizations, resulting in significant missteps and unproductive investments.
Worldwide competition and the explosion of technology that InTech magazine has described over the past few years are driving change. Manufacturers are realizing that leveraging low-cost labor is not a winning strategy and are investing in automation. For example, in 2016, China's national 10-year plan, "Made in China 2025," described how the country is aiming to become one of the top technological industrial nations within just a few years. China is now the largest purchaser of industrial robots in the world.
Manufacturing is attracting venture capital and a new set of players, including technology companies, IT organizations, computer consultants, software companies, and management consultants focusing on bringing change to industry. They have enthusiasm and new ideas, but lack the activity knowledge, know-how, and skills of industrial automation professionals.
Despite what many suppliers and consultants say, I do not believe there is a single "silver bullet" solution to achieve high-efficiency integrated industrial production and manufacturing. Rather, a systems approach is required-understanding operations and the technologies available, and applying them effectively, which is a major strength of automation professionals.
Simply refining automation systems and manufacturing methods may not ensure a company is competitive in the future. This is the time for automation professionals to explore potential competitive game changers enabled by new technologies and methods. Industry 4.0 generally references the last industrial revolution as Henry Ford's assembly line. It reduced Model T production from more than 12 hours to 93 minutes, with Ford capturing a 48 percent share of the automobile market by 1914.
It is instructional to remember how the U.S. automotive manufacturers lost share when adoption of new technologies and methods stagnated after the 1960s. By 1997, Japan produced 21 percent of automobiles. Success of the Japanese automotive manufacturers was attributed to advanced manufacturing methods, aggressive automation, and aggressive use of robotics. During that time, U.S. automakers had access to the same technologies and methods, but did not take advantage of them until compelled by competitive economic factors. The competitive landscape is not static; adoption of new technology during times of significant innovation is critical for success.
There is a case to be made with industrial automation users and vendors to support and be active in ISA, or be controlled by outside technologists, including IT and associated organizations, associations, and companies. Collaboration and the collective voice of automation professionals is the best way to impact and mold the future with solid industry background, knowledge, and know-how. Times of dramatic change can be dangerous; the only leveling factor is informed people taking action and applying clear logic.