As 2023 draws to a close, the industrial automation landscape continues to evolve. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), Collaborative Robots (cobots), Internet of Things (IoT), 3-D printing and other technology advances continue to push industrial automation in new directions. Recently, a group of experts shared their insights about industrial automation trends and what 2024 may hold.
Jim Beretta, Brand and Marketing Consultant, Customer Attraction Industrial Marketing, moderator for the webinar hosted by the Association for Advancing Automation (A3)
Joe Gemma, Chief Revenue Officer, Wauseon Machine
Jeff Wells, Director, Automation Sales, Ehrhardt Automation Systems
Tom Rozema, Chief Revenue Officer, JR Automation
Joe Wykes, Chief Revenue Officer, Vention
One of the legacies of the global pandemic is a continued global labour shortage. Wells noted that many customers are exploring automation for the first time, either as a way to automate functions to allow them to redeploy existing personnel, or as a way to meet continued labour shortages. This creates unique challenges for robot integrators, as new customers may be unfamiliar with the skillset required to support the automation, and may not have the necessary budget allocation. “The earlier the robot integrator can be involved in the project discussions, the easier it is to ensure that all the customer’s needs are met.”
Wykes noted that as technology becomes more accessible, the “inevitability of automation” has shifted automated solutions from a “nice to have” to “need to have.” In addition, companies need to be able to quickly produce new products in response to customer demand, and automation provides the speed to move from idea to execution. 3-D printing is becoming more mainstream, and with the process cycle improving, many companies are adopting 3-D printing solutions.
Many materials handling and warehousing operations are not only increasing the use of automated transfer vehicles (ATV) and autonomous mobile robots (AMR), they are adding cobots to ATV or AMR to complete additional tasks.
Wykes added digital twin and simulation allows companies to “de-risk” a project with a “like for like experience” to design, experiment and test a solution prior to execution and implementation. Gemma added that vision technology is providing an affordable innovative solution, especially when combined with ML and AI, 4D vision or lighting. Rozema noted they have seen broader use of digital twin applications to gain efficiencies in many industries with multi-sku environments or multiple product lines.
As part of this trend, there has been an increase in projects for low volume, high mix environments that require flexibility and fast or automated changeovers. In addition,many companies are scaling back internal engineering in favour of outsourcing technology or process improvements leveraging expertise readily available. Alternatively, companies are also making a skillset investment in technology-enabled engineers to drive automation in the businesses, or find ways to use automation to deliver more faster.
While many automation companies eat,sleep and breath big data, IoT and Industry 4.0, for customers it is often a case of diametrical opposition. Some customers have fully embraced big data, smart applications and IoT, while others are unfamiliar or have not added smart systems for managing the data, or allowing IoT connectivity. That can be a challenge for automation companies trying to introduce smart automation solutions or update existing infrastructure to include IoT and Industry 4.0 applications. Software, data and applications can provide opportunities for nimble, agile responses for manufacturers, and data management will become more important. AI and ML can provide assistance with adding smart solutions to a manufacturing operation that may have piecemeal automation solution.
Part of the challenge of big data is storage. In the advent of 5G, Cloud-based digital architecture has seen a shift. Improvements in security technology and protocols provide better digital solutions and allow for enhanced global technology connectivity, while adding a layer of protection against cyber attacks.
The labour shortage is not unique to manufacturing; robot OEMs and integrators also have trouble finding and retaining skilled talent. Apprenticeship programs were discontinued, and interest in manufacturing declined. In the advent of the new technology, the industry is partnering with education institutions to shape curriculum to spark interest in cutting edge manufacturing. Involvement in the school system with events like First Robotics generates excitement and interest from an early age. Once employees have been hired and trained, by providing enhancement opportunities, investing in management and providing flexible or hybrid work options companies have a better chance of retaining skilled and valuable personnel.
A legacy of the global pandemic was the resulting supply chain issues due to shutdowns and shipping delays. While there is a great deal of “chatter” about reshoring, in reality it has been more a “nearshoring” situation where companies have moved plants to North America but located them in Mexico rather than the United States. Rather than “reshoring”, companies are “stayshoring”, investing in factories in North America to ensure equipment and technology will be readily available in the future.
Looking forward into 2024, one of the technologies that Rozema thinks will continue to advance is generative AI to leverage technology and historical data to push out responses faster. Wells noted that he expects more consolidation in the automation industry in 2024, while Wykes felt that cobots will continue to provide opportunities for more widespread adoption especially when paired with simulation applications to make adoption easier and faster. He also noted that the trend towards “not if, but when” and “I may not have been first but I shouldn’t be last” will continue to drive innovation and adoption of the technology. Gemma is hoping for a national policy to support automation and development of the technology. The prevailing opinion that technology somehow takes jobs away is changing, and many countries in the world already have a national strategy.
Finally, a number of technology companies caught the attention of the panel in 2023.
Here are the ones to watch (in no particular order):
Apera AI 4D vision
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