The Future of Industrial Automation

The first industrial revolution occurred in the 18th century when the steam engine was invented. This invention led to the mechanization of the production process, and urbanization became the order of the day. Electricity came alongside other technological advancements in the second industrial revolution, and these innovations led to the mass production of services. The inception of digital technology and computers came to be in the third industrial revolution during the mid-1900s. The third industrial revolution has since led to industrial automation and the disruption of industries. We’re currently in the fourth industrial revolution, AKA 4IR, where technology facilitates transformative changes by merging AI, robotics, 3D printing, genetic engineering, IoT, and many other platforms and systems.

In this episode of The Future Of… Jeff is joined by Sean Busby from Barry-Wehmiller Design Group, Marco Micheletti, Director of Automation at Fresh Consulting, and Jeffrey Gueble, Automation Director at Fresh Consulting.


Marco Micheletti: People might think of it as automation is opposite of people or exclusive of people, but I really think, again, the approach and the mindset is it’s about people actually. Automation is about people using robots. It’s about how do we bring the people along, include them in the process, help them understand this is for their benefit.

Jeff Dance: Welcome to The Future Of, a podcast by Fresh Consulting, where we discuss and learn about the future of different industries, markets, and technology verticals. Together, we’ll chat with leaders and experts in the field and discuss how we can shape the future human experience. I’m your host, Jeff Dance.

Welcome to The Future Of, it’s my pleasure to introduce this episode focused on the future of industrial automation. I’m excited to have some automation experts here, as we think about the future being more automated and change is coming quicker than expected. Here, with me, I have Sean Busby and Marco Micheletti. These are folks with a lot of experience, broad experience in the industrial automation space. Sean, if I can start with you, would you care to tell the listeners a little bit about yourself?

Sean Busby: Sure. Thanks, Jeff. Sean Busby and I’ve been working in systems integration for the last about 14 years of my career. Working for a systems integrator, owning my own systems integration company and now I manage a local systems integration practice for a large consulting firm, Barry-Wehmiller Design Group.

Jeff: Nice. Looking at your experience, it seemed like you had a lot of broad experience and a lot of different aspects of this space. You’ve been able to see a lot. That’s why I was really interested in getting your opinions.

Sean: My career has taken me all over the US to a lot of different manufacturing facilities and industries. So a very broad variety of experience and automation that I’ve been exposed to.

Jeff: Nice. How big is the company that you currently work with?

Sean: We have 1500 engineers spanning across oil and gas architecture. We have our systems integration practice and a few others, but about 350 control systems engineer in our systems integration practice across 44 offices in the US. We also have an India engineering team as well.

Jeff: Awesome. Thanks for being here with us. Marco, if I can pass to you, can you introduce yourself to the listeners?

Marco: Sure. Thanks for the introduction Jeff, I’m Marco Micheletti. I’m currently the Director of Automation at Fresh Consulting. Here at Fresh, we have a team of about 50 engineers. We’re addressing all aspects of automation as well as product development and other fun challenging problems. I spent a good portion of my career…I would consider myself a builder and builder of products, builder of processes, builder of organizations, and fun aspects of automation.

I think, like Sean, a lot of my experience in the manufacturing space early in my career took me many places across the globe and we got to see the seeds of automation and how everybody on different continents were approaching this in their manufacturing operations. That’s really what inspired me to steer my career more into automation by building upon what I’ve done in the manufacturing supply chain space.

Jeff: Great. Marco and I met at a future robotics conference and one of the things that impressed me a lot when we met was seeing some of your automation experience, seeing some of the projects you were working on. I remember entire warehouse of robots and machines automating the production of a high volume output line, seeing the breadth of dozens of machines making things happen without a lot of maybe not a lot of human interaction.

I thought that was really impressive, but think the sophistication of things you’ve seen across the globe. I’m really so excited to have you here with us. Before we get started, this is a deeper topic we’re talking about the future and a lot of changes are coming as a result of the pandemic, can I start with just, what do you guys do for fun? What’s something you do for fun before we go deep?

Marco: I actually start really quick because one thing Sean and I didn’t know is that we both get up to the mountains every once in a while. We bumped into each other at the racecourse. We were actually, our teams were racing against each other in a weekly racing league.

Sean: Yes. There’s a local beer league, so to speak here in Seattle. That’s actually one of the largest in the country. There’s like 700 participants. It’s like four nights a week. I’ve been doing that for 14 years. I like to coach junior ski racers as well, but the season’s pretty short here in Seattle. Since I’ve lived here, I’ve gotten into sailboat racing and that has become my thing. Six months of the year, I’m doing about 50 sailboat races with my team and I’ve got a boat and that’s been really fun.

Marco: Along that theme, I’m trying to get into the aquatic sports as well, and try to enjoy some of the summer weather in the Puget Sound area on the water as well, which is an exciting aspect and a great way to spend time with the family,

Jeff: Nice. Water sports and snow sports. You’re my type of people, for sure so excited to talk more about that after the show. This is great, and recently watching the Olympics, we saw one example of a lot of automation seeing all the snow production and creation that was done in China. I think that was really interesting to see. Our Snow Sports may see more automation in the future. Hopefully, our local resorts when we’re missing some of that snow. As we think about the future of industrial automation, there’s the current landscape, and then there’s the future looking out ahead, maybe 10 to 20 years out.

That’s how I want to direct our time together looking at the current state, talking about the future, and then at the end, I’d love to get some advice from both of you on those that might be affected from some of these shifts that are coming, how can they prepare and think differently as they plan for the future? They’re more prepared for changes that might come. To get started, with the current state, industrial automation is a loaded word. Unpack that for us a little bit and help us understand what goes into industrial automation? What are we talking about when we say that word?

Sean: It can mean a lot of things, Jeff. I think that it’s about as open-ended of a definition as it gets, I would say anything from automotive, aerospace, oil, and gas, chemical industry, warehouse distribution, anything like that can all get lumped into industrial. At design group, we try to categorize it a little bit and we lump a lot of things into just general heavy industry, but basically, any kind of automation that is geared toward producing either a product is what I would call industrial automation. What do you think, Marco?

Marco: Yes. I wanted to call back to one of our previous podcasts with Mitch and we talked about robotics and we used to have this really simplistic. It was just really helpful for us to think about what does automation mean to us and for Mitch and myself, we had different focuses and we made a circle around anything with wheels was a robot, and anything that worked, did work in a manufacturing space logistics center or perform tests and functions that were directed on a closed environment was really more what industrial automation was.

I think that it’s convenient, at least, for categorization to think about closed environments and open environments or fixed environments and unstructured environments as one way. I think, traditionally, industrial automation has lived in the fixed environment space. I think when we and we should talk about this more today, as we look towards the future, those things I think are quickly blending or the future is going to be a mix of both of those.

Sean: The lines are being blurred for sure. You’d almost lump building automation, especially when you consider data centers and the technology going into those is really industrial automation principles. I remember listening to your other podcast and future construction. Again, it’s like a lot of the same stuff is being applied, same technology, same concepts, same problems to solve.

Jeff: I’m glad you guys are bringing this up the blurring of things. What has historically been automation? What is opening up our world as we think about the future, because I think that is part of our future discussion, really, is the unstructured environment. Is the confluence of all these things coming together and blurring which, as we think about the industrial revolution, the fourth industrial revolution that we’ve been reading about, it’s really about the confluence of technologies.

It’s like stuff that already exists but is now coming together in really interesting ways as we think about. If we stay in the current state for a little bit, what are some of the trends that are happening right now that are really impacting the acceleration of automation?

Marco: Yes. I think that there’s two sides to it that are coming together and then they’re forming this confluence or forming this confluence and inflection point, which we see a tremendous impact of let’s call it “Moores-Law. The cost of the equipment is coming down. The computing power is getting cheaper and smaller. The sensors and the capability of the sensors are all really becoming much more powerful, especially when you put them together and they are able to integrate them and that’s giving a tremendous advantage more than orders a magnitude of advantage in the solution space and power of what you can do with the equipment.

Then on the other side, we see there’s constraints in our workforce or constraints in what we might call the COVID effects which are accelerating it, but there’s a lot of factors coming together that are enabling and creating something that we haven’t been able to achieve is these return on investments now are becoming much more easier with all this power and technology behind it. That’s one of the really big waves that we’re riding here.

Sean: Yes, maybe to add on to what Marco was saying. The trends I’m seeing now is the integration between the business level, the enterprise level, software and the manufacturing floor. It’s been talked about and we’ve been all saying we’re going to do this at every business for a while. It’s happening, and it really comes down to a principle of sharing information between devices and that’s where things are going.

We’re just now getting to the point where everything has information, it’s faster to connect, it’s faster to get that information to other places, we’re only using the data we need. We’re not storing thousands of camera pictures on servers and never looking at them again. Then one thing to mention as a trend is definitely collaborative robots and being able to take automation and bring it to the smaller manufacturers, and having humans interacting with these robots, where safety is easy.

It’s this, I would call, ease of use automation, where the users now, it’s a user-friendly platform, you don’t have to be a veteran controls engineer like myself, to set up a cobot. You can be a technician or even a lot of production managers, production engineers, they can get a cobot working, and actually, something useful quickly.

Jeff: Going along even deeper, the trends that you talked about, especially the technology trends, this confluence of things coming together and I really like the notion of software connecting down with the machine automations and systems. Software has been on a rapid accelerated pace but it seems like the industrial automation equipment that has served automation has been left behind a little bit. Now, we see that trajectory coming together, as things get better, cheaper, faster.

Let’s dive in on the pandemic, and the global supply chain shortage that we’ve seen, we have hundreds of thousands of businesses worldwide that have been impacted by this, if not billions of consumers for sure. That leaves a serious mark, in the minds of people thinking about changes and we’ve seen so many changes as a result of this in all of our work. How does that change industrial automation? How does that accelerate industrial automation?

Marco: I think that what that mark is, or partially contributing to it is that we’ve exposed areas where we’re fragile in the supply chains. They’re fragile, because we call them dull, dirty, dangerous, or they’re not the desirable jobs and people are looking at this and saying, “It’s not necessarily a place I need to return to.” Or there’s some aspect around these jobs where there’s maybe more attractive jobs in other places, and people are somehow shifting away from these.

What that means for automation is that these are great opportunities for automation to come in and play a role in augmenting the workforce that at the end of the day, aren’t jobs that folks are really well suited for, to begin with and it was just really out of necessity, that we’re dealing with these or whatever the reasons are, but now they’re exposed the sore spots and automation has a place to play and supplement.

Sean: I’d say you can do all that remotely now, as part of what the pandemic allowed as those few folks that do have the skill set that is needed now can play on projects all over the place and we can bring that manufacturing environment to wherever you are in the world. The more that we’re connected in that way, I think, that’s what’s accelerating but on the other hand, the supply chain issues are actually hindering some progress in industrial automation, because people just can’t get the hardware they need.

I have clients right now, when they want a new production line, they’re ordering their controllers six months in advance, and it’s really hard to be producing new processes or creating new manufacturing process when you don’t have hardware.

Jeff: Got it. Speaking of that, there has been a new expectation with all this ordering online about the speed of delivery, and we have Amazon leading the way in many respects as the leading online e-commerce platform with the delivery time and that seems to only be increasing. We have hour-type deliveries and one-day deliveries instead of two-day deliveries. We also have the shortages and supply chain issues causing some disruption there but how do you see that also speeding up industrial automation in the future?

Sean: The analytics that you’re talking about that run the logistics for distribution are being applied to manufacturing now that we can bring that information from the factory floor up to those analytics engines, you’re getting companies that are investing in manufacturing smarts, whether it’s machines that are self diagnostic, whether it’s having optimization of your process, learning how to reduce waste, things like that, less part failures, more successful rates of production, things like that. It’s all being applied throughout the industry.

Marco: Yes and we’ve seen Amazon go out and build distribution centers all over and just the intelligence is telling them, where do I need to put this so that I can deliver and how many items do I put in that center to probabilistically deliver so many of the items that people are going to want to anticipate? Instead of becoming reactive, now they’re on the leading edge being anticipating what people are going to demand and need and want and that’s because they have this information, which is really powerful.

Jeff: Thanks for those insights. We actually heard from one other outside expert on the future. Let’s listen now to their insights.

Jeff Gueble: Hi. I’m Jeff Gueble and I just joined Fresh as automation director about a month ago. I have a long history in automation, I’ve been in the business for about 36 years, with brief … into some product development and product realization. I’ve been both an external integrator and an internal automation resource. I’ve automated entire factories, and then run those factories in high production settings where we were making 30 thousands units a day. 

There’s always an impetus to be ahead of the curve in any industry, but what do you think will be the next big step forward in industrial automation? I think what we’re going to see next is articulated robotic arms, we always see this on platforms, but being able to do real work where they are just not tethered to anything at all. and they have the ability to find the work piece, find the part feeder, and pick in place the part or do whatever assembly is necessary, and do this all on wheels. That will be a really big step that will change the whole face of things. 

Jeff: We have the lack of labor, the cost of labor, the speed of delivery increasing. We have all these advances in technology. We have a lot of companies running on just in time manufacturing still. We have shortages at the same time and this global disruption of the supply chain, this pain, all of these things are affecting the outlook on industrial automation and the pace and acceleration.

If I go talk to business owners, none of them are saying, “Hey, I want more automation.” Everyone wants more automation. Sean, you had mentioned that just getting the equipment right now, given the current climate is holding us back. What else is holding companies back right now from doing more automation? If that’s such a high desire right now and it’s coming, what are some of the things that are holding people back?

Sean: Willingness to take risk. I think there’s a lot of dinosaurs in industrial automation. We’re talking about places that have 40-year old control systems that are hanging on by a few bandaids and they don’t want to make that capital investment again to catch up. The companies that just started in the last 10 years, the relativity space, and just companies that are doing all this cutting edge technology because they’re able to put their capital into automation and they’re seeing the immediate rewards of it.

Whereas, a lot of these people are being left behind because they’re not willing to take risks and that they’re usually slow to market or slow. It takes them a lot longer to actually get something running in a facility compared to these light-speed businesses that we see now.

Marco: It’s something that I’ve talked about in the manufacturing space and I’ve seen this all the way back from my days at Microsoft. It’s management’s willingness to invest and at least be progressive thinking and seeing that if I don’t change, if I don’t adopt, I’m going to get left behind and some industries and some folks are just particularly, they’re more suited to that and it’s trap and automation sometimes it’s big, expensive and capital intensive, but you don’t necessarily have to take the plunge all at once.

It comes down to change management and mindset from the Exec. level down. It’s something that I’ve seen repeatedly around the world, no matter where, again, in Europe, Asia, US, I’ve seen the best and worst factories. In terms of automation and management thought and honestly, they’ve both been in the US. I’ve seen some of the most advanced, progressive thinking people doing amazing things that it’s just part of their culture built in and other folks who have just been completely resistant to change and they haven’t survived.

Sean: Yes. I think a lot of businesses think automation is always lights out and that there’s no people and it has to be all robots and it has to be all high speed, but that’s not necessarily the case. There’s a lot of companies that I’m doing manual assist or hybrid manufacturing that’s still way better than making it by hand. There’s a lot of manual operations still out there and people are getting carpal tunnel, there’s lawsuits.

All of a sudden that’s already justified, you’ve got your ROI already there, but it doesn’t mean you have to make massive robots that are making your product. There’s a lot of clever ways to do it and finding the appropriate automation solution for your company is I think the challenge that all these companies are faced with.

Jeff: Yes. I like that perspective of just, hey, if it’s just a piece of automation here or there, take away that repetitive mundane task that you’re struggling to find labor for because people don’t want to do it. If you took that piece and improve that piece, your flywheel becomes a lot faster. That doesn’t mean, hey, I’m replacing a whole bunch of my entire team of people that are on the factory line or in the warehouse or in the supply chain because it’s been automated, it’s just a piece.

I think we also saw that with Tesla. They tried to do too much automation. They realized, hey, we got to bring the humans back and we got to bring that intellect back in. All that power that’s in the mind and the 27 degrees of freedom in your hand. Combining the hand with elbow, with the arm and the ability to think on the fly. In front of a computer, it’s like there’s so much power there. Hey, are we augmenting a piece in the equation or are we really thoughtful about what we automate? I think that’s part of good planning.

Marco: If you said being thoughtful about it and automation, people might think of it as automation is opposite of people or exclusive of people. I really think, again, the approach and the mindset is: it’s about people actually. Automation is about people using robots, is about how do we bring the people along, include them in the process to help them understand this is for their benefit. Most companies, one of these other really big trends is that companies are not trying to replace their people. They’re trying to augment them.

That’s a message I’ve seen extremely strongly over and over again. Again, lots of different places. They want their flywheel to be more efficient, but they’re not trying to replace the people. They have need and use for those people. They want to go on the automation journey together with their people and involve them in that process.

Jeff: Great. We’ve talked a little bit about the current state, some of the shifting forces, some of the problems and innovation often begets problems and I would assume some of these business owners might be a little bit more reluctant or feeling enough pain that they’re joining everyone else. Maybe that’s the bandwagon but everyone else is really centered around this topic most recently.

If we look to the future, let’s fast forward 10 to 20 years from now, we’ve heard this term, the fourth industrial revolution and can unpack that a little bit. What do we see changing significantly? What are some of the things that are going to change our world, change our work. Talk to us more about how you guys envision the future in this space.

Sean: When I talk about controls, I always say your controls are only as good as your feedback, or your process is only as good as what you know about it. What we talked about earlier about just the information revolution of getting information from all the devices in your factory and using them appropriately, that is what I see 20 years from now is the Nano wireless revolution, where I don’t have to go wire up a machine. You just go mount your sensors, everything’s talking back to an encrypted wireless hub that’s going to then give the information to the controller for your line automation or whatever.

There’s no more installation of low voltage devices. Everything’s going to be wireless. Then bringing things to market is just going to be way faster. There’s products I worked on or prototype manufacturing systems that took four, four and a half years to develop for aerospace companies. They’re super challenging and there’s reasons it took a while, but maybe now that would take six months.

That’s the change that I’m seeing is that because of standardization and having libraries and reuse of code and applications that controls engineers are living on the application and process layer, and not having to do low-level programming. I see that happening more and more to where we can do way more projects in a year deliver automation solutions way faster. Without the bog down of installation and wiring and getting things to play nicely and communicate, everything’s just going to happen faster.

Marco: Yes, I think that the infrastructure is definitely changing. One of the directions I see is the transition from, again, the closed or the structured environment the traditional assembly line, which is a very structured environment. When we talk about, there’s the automation process and there’s the supply chain of bringing the part two there. That’s the very close structured way that I think, again, if I was to define industrial automation, that’s one of the attributes. With the power of all this, all the sensors and software, I see us being able to transition into this unstructured environment or we’re linking these closed environments now together.

We’re using the AGVs to bring the materials to the front of the line. We’re packaging and positioning and extending the line so that the end of one production line is the beginning of another and so all of a sudden, these things that used to be standalone units are all networked together and this is a more open environment and sometimes we’re linking the site or across multiple sites. AGVs or vehicles are bringing materials from one building to the next. Now we’re in this really diverse environment.

What is automation? Automation is more than it is the wheeled robot now. It is the robot arm. It is the conveyor belt, is everything being orchestrated and working together. That’s something that we’ve called the Overwatch layer. Everything is going to be orchestrated in the data, in the cloud or at the control layer that Shawn’s also been talking about. It’s not just analytics, it’s now how do we control and operate everything. It’s really, the synchronization of orchestration of all these systems working together is where I see the next 10 and 20 years, automation going and growing.

Sean: To add to what Marco was saying, I could see automation becoming more of a service or even a product. Joe, beer company orders a Canning line, a palletizer, and a few AGVs for the next month, and he orders it from an app and Canning co Inc, simply comes and delivers all that and sets it up and runs it for a few months for their annual specialty beer that they do every October or whatever. It’s becoming so modular and common and reusable, that it is almost now a commodity.

Jeff: Got it. Things are really speeding up. We’re looking at more unstructured environments, more open environments, including robotics, like autonomous or automated guided vehicles, the AGVs that are integrated into the workflow. It’s not like this closed ecosystem where maybe it’s hard to have people around, it’s more of a fluid environment and enables us to basically automate in a lot of different places, and bring automation to a lot of different environments that were previously configured specifically for automation.

Marco: Or to keep people out. A lot of these traditional spaces were exclusive of people. It’s not good to have people near a bottling line with 300 bottles a minute zipping by. These are not safe environments. Now, when we’re opening up this environment, again, it’s inclusive of people. People are interacting, people may be playing a part again, in conjunction with the automation, and that’s the direction where we definitely see things.

Sean: Safety basically becoming modular and known and easier to deploy and easier to work with, as opposed to just being a nuisance, which is often how it’s looked at in industrial automation.

Marco: It’s part of the system design, and it’s inherent in the solution.

Jeff: Got it. If we think about the fourth industrial revolution, the first being water, and steam, the second being electric power, the third being Electronics, Information Technology, and the fourth being characterized by this fusion of technologies, that affects industrial automation. If we can name a few of those things, AI, Cloud, IoT, Blockchain, AR, computer vision, you guys mentioned robotics, drones, batteries, battery advancements.

Tell us more about how these things affect industrial automation? Pick out a few of these things and tell us how does that play a role in speeding up and affecting industries? This is the fourth industrial revolution, people hear about this, but get into some of the specifics, help us understand how that plays out in automation?

Marco: That goes up on that list and Sean mentioned it, is the wireless infrastructure, low latency wireless, is a huge enabler, just from the data collection or the infrastructure. Like you said, it’s a game-changer in the sense of you take your widget, and you plop it on the line, and it’s talking to the cloud, and you’re already set to go. There’s no special installation, there’s no infrastructure that’s really significant or heavy, and that’s huge, and that belongs in that conversation.

Sean: You show up to your machine, you plug in a new sensor, and the controller reads a data sheet that’s already on the sensor that tells the controller what it is, how to configure it, it sets it up in your code for you, and then you write your code, and your code actually creates the human interface for you. There’s some clients I’m working with now where we write our PLC code, and that code is actually taken and converted into a format that’s then now a human-machine interface.

It’s a little primitive in how it works, but not having to develop a touchscreen interface for every production line. Instead, when you write that software, it’s already in a format that can now be automated into an interface, cutting out those steps. Nowadays, all the tech has a communication protocol, we’re not using discrete digital and analog signals to talk to devices, so you get way less wiring.

You can have a lot of distributed systems, everything’s now in distributed system. You can use a fault-tolerant, redundant server that lives in a different room instead of putting a Dell tower to run your whole automation work cell, which I always thought was crazy. That’s where I’m actually seeing it. It still blows my mind that we have $15 million of machinery running on a $1000 Dell tower. It just never made sense to me.

Jeff Guble: What are the challenges that we face in industrial automation today? I don’t know if it’s a challenge or not but I think one of the interesting things out there is: “How does the new suite of mobile robotics platforms affect how we layout production lines?” Up until recently, everything was laid out as a rigid transfer system or parts were moved down the line through different cells. But with the introduction of mobile robotics, that’s all changing. There are big questions about the stability of the platform and the accuracy of the platform, and what all you can do with the limited power budget. But it is going to change the face of automation in the next decade, and its going to be a very interesting change.

Jeff: As far as computer vision, that’s a word like helping computers see and then AI, lots of variance of AI, but how do we see computer vision AI affecting industrial automation?

Sean: Inspection systems are just way better than they’ve ever been before. Quality control is no longer person or if it is there’s way fewer people. Then vision-guided robots is becoming actually a pretty easy thing to implement. I know a company in Portland is just prototype robotic stuff that they’re working on a cinematography robot that’s literally doing filming of commercials and they’ve set it up so that the production people can run the robot and tell it what to do and doesn’t require a controls engineer to sit there writing vision algorithms anymore. Everything’s already done for you it’s a matter of reuse and making it user-friendly.

Marco: The AI aspects– Vision enables you to put the sensors and whatever if it’s a camera or any other type of sensor as an input. We are collecting the data and again, we can be smart about which data to collect, but the converse is sensors are becoming cheap and you can sprinkle them everywhere and you can store the data and you can put it up into the cloud and then you can task.

It’s an impossible problem for a human to solve, sprinkle on your AI whatever your flavor of AI is, and there’s tremendous insights and value to that come out of that. We’ve seen this case study over and over again, there’s things that you just wouldn’t have that weren’t intuitive, that you’re now being able to improve your process, increase your quality, and increase your speed. Those are just some of the benefits that are coming out. You couldn’t do this 10 years ago that now we’re able to do.

Sean: Speed is a big one. Processing speed was something that was really holding back a lot of vision applications. I know I looked at an inspection problem last year where we’re looking for nanometer-size defects on a product that’s moving two meters per second down the line, and that’s incredibly challenging. 10 years ago, no chance. That’s a science experiment. It’s not an automation project and now that stuff is reality. Now, those companies that are willing to take those risks to try those technologies are seeing the benefits of just incredible production rates.

Jeff: What about 3D printing? We talk a lot about mass-scale automation, but there’s also this big trend for small-scale automation and 3D printing continues to make massive leaps forward. Any thoughts on how that’s going to change the future?

Marco: I think that that also was a niche or something barely possible 10 years ago to make something. Now people said, and people that had the vision said, we will be making production level parts, not just prototypes using additive methods and they were right. I still don’t think that you’ve it’s being adopted slowly across industries, but it’s coming, it’s continued coming. It’ll continue to get here.

Sean: It could be a huge game-changer. I don’t know that it’s there yet, but often what I find in manufacturing is that the material handling is the hardest part, like at the actual process, whatever it is, isn’t as hard as actually getting whatever it is you’re using into the machine, in the right orientation set upright to the tolerance that you want. 3D printing takes care of all of that and so if you’re able to use composites, able to build structures and complex designs with these 3D printers, and have them somewhat mobile and adapt optimally, they could very much change the game.

Marco: Yes. We’re talking about it as, as not quite there, but it’s almost there on a number of fronts. It’s like a rocket engine parts, that’s how they’re building rocket engine parts that are lighter weight, more reliable, that industry was right for that technology and they’ve taken it and run with it and it’s just going to continue to keep going. We’ve seen it in, like you mentioned, carbon fiber but we’re close to having really high-strength plastic parts instead of injection molding. It’s not quite there, it’s there for maybe some niche applications but really close.

Jeff: How do we see automation in future shifting the landscape of outsourcing? We’ve heard a lot of trend of manufacturing a lot of automation coming back to the US. Whereas, historically, we’ve outsourced a lot of our high volume manufacturing just because of the cost of labor and how that cost of labor is helping with automated production, but cost of labor, has gone up around the world.

Then we’ve seen as connected as we are, we’ve seen the value of having a really tightly connected supply chain, get disrupted. There’s a lot of talk about manufacturing and industrial automation, really coming back to be a competitive advantage here in the US. Is that something you see shifting big global shifts in the next 10 to 20 years?

Sean: I do. I think it’s as automation gets cheaper and people cost more, you’re just going to see more of it in more places, as, and I know a lot of the mass productions that are in China and places like that, there’s no reason that it can’t come to the US to Europe. You’re seeing it more in the really advanced sector, where those companies aren’t necessarily going overseas anymore.

Marco: I agree. It had been the– The high volume manufacturing space and the supply chain had been driven by low-cost labor. All of that labor was the manufacturing jobs just like followed the labor, right. Labor’s increasing the disruptions in physical supply chain, ports, geopolitics, all these factors play into, again, pandemics play all play into things that are disrupting or exposing again, the fragility of long supply chains.

I think that when folks look at like total cost of ownership of a product, and you’re looking down through the supply chain, there’s a good 10 or 12 factors there. People typically get hung up and fixed on labor part cost maybe shipping timelines, but there’s these other nine factors that are all equal important. If you can’t get all your parts and materials together in the same spot.

I think that when we’re talking about the supply chain, we’re really going to be seen. It’s just not just the labor. We need to make the supply chain more robust, which inherently means more localized, close, or shorter networks who are more reactive and able to connect raw materials all the way through and products, but in a more localized network space. That’s where I think we’re going,

Jeff: We’re super connected worldwide. That trend has enabled us to just advance in so many different ways. The recent disruption in that has created this trend to have more localized environments because we have better technology and advances that allow us to have that footprint locally.

Marco: Yes. We’re not changing, this isn’t going to go away, but I think there’s going to be more of a hybrid approach where we’re not going to be as centralized for one particular component of the supply chain in one particular location, and be as reliant on that as we were in the past. I still think that when you get down all the way down to the commodity level components, we’re going to be distributing materials globally, worldwide, but people are being supplementing locally as well.

Jeff: Let’s talk a little bit about the human experience and how this affects people. How do we see this rise in automation changing the human experience that they’re calling this, again, the fourth industrial revolution and each revolution has caused massive changes, shifts in how we work and interact. Thoughts on how this affects people.

Sean: I think better jobs a lot of people think it’s removing jobs, but really, you see one operator that works on 10 different process lines instead of one operator that just does one task all day. I think that the ability to be flexible and more skilled within each task is just growing, and you’re going to have better jobs for people and more demand for skilled labor.

Marco: I also think along those lines. Today, when some of the more advanced robotic applications or automation installations, we’re still tending the robot. We’re bringing things to it, we’re taking things away, we’re overseeing it. We’re giving it a lot of attention. We’re not really always in a truly autonomous state yet, but as we build out these networks and get more sophisticated, and we can remove ourselves from that environment. Again, we think about that supervisory role, one person’s overseeing multiple and orchestrating and helping do that.

Then eventually, a lot of that will be able to self-sustaining or taking over by itself. Again, on the other side, we’ll be creating these, we shouldn’t forget about the environments that people will be in. We need to think about how people are interacting and the types of interactions that we’ll be taking place in the automated spaces as well. There’s a lot of opportunity and a lot of thought that needs to be applied into these interactions and how do we design and create. It’s a different type of workspace and it’s a new opportunity, think about that.

Jeff: Different types of workspace, different skills, right, less monotony, more autonomy. What jobs do you see being created as a result of this? You guys are both engineers, you’ve been experts in the space. As this blows up if we have 10 times more automation in the US or in other countries, what jobs do you see being created as a result?

Sean: Maintenance and technicians have people to support it. After five years of the production line running, you may completely retool and change and you don’t want to bring in an army of programmers, again, you just want your technicians to take care of the changes. You’re going to need people to maintain them. All those robots we talked about, there’s typically six motors in them, and they were out. The gearboxes were out pretty fast when they’re running 24/7 and some people that can disassemble, reassemble, skilled mechanics, skilled electricians, and then IT, which is, again, a blurred line of engineering or information technology.

Especially when it comes to the manufacturing level, I really think there’s a demand for IT professionals that understand OT and the IT to the same level. That’s already there but I just see that continuing to grow.

Jeff: Can you tell the audience what OT stands for?

Sean: Operations technology, as opposed to information technology.

Marco: Once you have this piece of equipment, whatever it is, robots, automation, and advanced manufacturing line. Now instead of folks that their time is occupied by feeding the machine or doing these monotonous tasks, there’s this great opportunity in front of them. The machines do need tending, you need to understand how they’re working, they need maintenance, there’s opportunities to be programming. Right now, we have outside experts that are being called in to do that. I think that there’s a potential evolution here where sophisticated manufacturers will lean on that help and get specialized help where they need.

Then start to build that discipline in house as well so that the operations and the day-to-day can be covered by the folks that they have. They want to keep those people and task them to do that. That’s an elevated task for them.

Jeff Geuble: Where do you see people fitting into the future of industrial automation? Industrial Automation certainty requires an upgrade in the skillset of the factory floor personnel. Realistically, it doesnt change the role so much, it mostly takes away the mundane, boring parts of their jobs and allows them to all be work supervisors. 

It’s a hedge against the tendency to offshore production capacity in the United States, and allows to have high quality jobs that are meaningful to do, but don’t require backbreaking work.

Jeff: You have new jobs where you’re building systems, you’re designing them, you’re then maintaining them, you’re fixing them. You have people babysitting the robots, changing their diapers, or changing their gearboxes. Basically, it’s a big new job creation, because similar to maybe some of the other industrial revolutions, it’s a shift in the types of jobs. You still have people that are left in the wake of if a job got replaced in here, I’m doing that monotonous thing. I got used to that. I’ve been doing that for a while. During the pandemic, we had people just change gears completely and say, hey, I don’t want to go back to this monotonous work or this type of work.

Then we have people that have been in those jobs. Rounding out our discussion today, if you’re one of those people where their job got replaced, and they’re thinking what’s new? Or if they’re one of those people coming into the education room thinking about what skills should I be getting for the next 10 to 20 years? What advice would you give from an educational perspective, from a retraining perspective? What are some of the spaces that people should be paying attention to and getting some training in?

Sean: First off, just don’t be afraid of tech. All of us, even the brightest controls guys, all they do is spend every day in tech. They still struggle the first time that they’re learning something that it’s okay to see some new technology and not understand it. Don’t be afraid of that, be willing to embrace it. Have an open mind that you can learn these different skills and then often at six months a two-year degree things like that are game-changers when it comes to the types of jobs that will be available to you.

MARCO: Yes. I’m seeing that in the technical college space, the curriculum at some of the local two-year programs are amazing. We’ve seen companies’ major OEMs that are now utilizing them as that transition. Help us upskill and send their workforce to these programs so that they can manage that change as well. It’s a mindset as well that, one, you don’t have to be a computer programmer anymore. You don’t have to have that engineering degree.

Also, these interfaces to these devices are getting easier and easier. All these machines are getting easier to interface with, the barrier to entry is also coming down with this technology increasing. That’s just the realization that it’s not that far off or it’s not a big stretch anymore, it’s within the grasp of a lot of people.

Sean: Yes. Designing and implementing an industrial automation system was much harder 30 years ago than it is today. The guys who came before me, when I stumble upon a design in the field from 30 years ago, I’m often just blown away like, “Well, wow. They only had eight bits to do this. How did they get all this information?” You see like, oh, wow, they did this really clever thing. It probably took this guy six months to do that. Then everybody has to be able to understand it.

Well, nowadays, none of that even comes up and these folks are being exposed to tech, but you’re only having to see the surface and you really only have to understand the surface of it to be able to use it and apply it. That’s allowing just way more access to everybody.

Jeff: A lot more jobs in the future related to this space and also a lower barrier to entry is what I’m hearing. It doesn’t have to be as intimidating. That could mean some of the education or some of the retraining could come faster as we think about some displacement. Yes, it’s going to be integration. It’s going to be augmentation, but we’re still going to have some displacement as new jobs are created, but what I’m hearing is that maybe that process could be a little bit faster, maybe less expensive, and less intimidating.

Marco: I think that there’s a responsibility by the folks implementing it to make sure that they’re bringing their people along for that ride. There’s a lot– We’re doing this with the client right now. They want to take the first step into automation and they want to keep every single person in their facility. We’re sending them surveys, we’re soliciting ideas. We’re going to go talk to the people. They realize that their people are their best resource and they have the best ideas and the best input into this. I think they’re doing it the right way. They’re like, let our people lead us on this mission.

Sean: The operators and production folks know more about the process than the engineer who’s writing the code to make it all automated. We still rely on those people and everything that you see that’s automated was usually once made manually. That’s how they come up with the automated process by watching how it’s done manually and then just trying to replicate it with the machine.

Jeff: There’s still a lot of value in understanding how things are manually done as even as we get into automation. Those that are doing more manual processes could be experts in helping create the automation. I think that’s awesome. I think the more we understand this space the less we fear it. I think for those that are fearing the future, some of the changes that come with this, I think that that general principle applies here where you can think about how you embrace the change versus fear of the change that’s coming.

This has been really helpful. I really appreciate you guys educating us as experts in the industrial automation space, helping us think about the future that’s coming, help us think about how to prepare as humans or leaders or business owners so we can process this and anticipate how we embrace the future also. Thanks for being on the show. Sean, it was great having you. Marco, great having you, and appreciate your insights.

Sean: Thanks, Jeff. It was a lot of fun.

Marco: Yes. Thanks, Jeff. Thanks, Sean, for joining us. I appreciate it.

Jeff: The Future Of podcast is brought to you by Fresh Consulting. To find out more about how we pair design and technology together to shape the future, visit us @freshconsulting.com. Make sure to search for The Future Of in Apple podcast, Spotify, Google podcast, or anywhere else podcasts are found. Make sure to click subscribe so you don’t miss any of our future episodes. On behalf of our team here at Fresh, thank you for listening.