Sunday, July 2, 2017

Why Automation is a Key to Innovation?

Every week I see news items that identify automation as a major threat to jobs. This is beginning to paint automation as an enemy of financial well-being of a large segment of human population. However, there is a different side to the automation story. Automation has been a major force behind many modern innovations and associated industries. Unfortunately, the connection between automation and innovation has not received much attention in the media. 

Often automation has been presented as a means to eliminate the need for humans to do dull, dangerous, and dirty tasks. Moreover, the value of automation is often rationalized in terms of cost reductions. If automation is viewed only with this lens, then it basically comes across as an instrument to replace humans with machines and hence exacerbating employment prospects for many people. In many people’s mind automation is all about “dumb” machines doing the same task over and over in a monotonous way. Innovation requires human ingenuity and creativity, so automation cannot be farther away from being an enabler for innovation. This view is too myopic and prevents people from seeing the value of automation in enabling innovations and growing new industries.

Automation’s biggest contribution has been in assisting humans to overcome their inherent limitations in speed, strength, size, accuracy, consistency, and reaction time. Constraints associated with human capabilities ultimately limit what types of products can be realized with manual operations. Automation presents a solution to overcome these constraints. Once we think about automation from this perspective, we realize that automation can help us in realizing products that have complex shapes and small feature sizes and require high accuracy.

Automation has been leveraged to create many innovative products that cannot be made using manual operations. Here are few representative examples of innovations from the medical industry that were enabled by automation:
  • Computer Controlled Laser Machining: Computer controlled lasers have revolutionized machining. The software automatically controls the laser and can create really complex shapes on hard to machine metals in a matter minutes. Stents have been credited with saving many lives and they will simply not exist without computer controlled laser machining to realize complex shapes with small features.
  • 3D Printing: 3D printing epitomizes automation. A computer analyzes three dimensional model of the desired part and generates instructions so that a machine can automatically build it layer by layer. Shapes that cannot be produced by any means can be realized easily using 3D printing. Customized hearing aids will simply not exist without automation. 3D printing is also enabling customized implants and prosthesis. 
  • Automated Printed Circuit Board Assembly: Robots and motion control stages have revolutionized how printed circuit boards are assembled today. Automation enables printed circuit boards to utilize very small components that are packed very tightly in a confined space to create lightweight miniature electronics. The quality of life for diabetes patients will significantly deteriorate without glucose meters. Modern glucose meters rely on lightweight miniature electronics to function. These products will simply not be possible without automation in manufacturing of printed circuit board assemblies.
In summary, many innovative medical devices will simply cease to exist without the “helping hand” from automation.

I am concerned that all the negative press about automation will create a backlash against it. We really need advances in automation to realize the next generation products that will improve the quality of life. Automation is certainly creating challenges for the workforce and we need to find a solution to address it. However, we need to acknowledge the value of automation in driving innovations.

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