For the manufacturing and automation industries, 2018 promises to be a seminal year. We're likely to hit an automation Rubicon*, beyond which companies will struggle to survive if they haven't got the tech readies.
Don't worry! We're not about to have a Matrix-Style Robot Revolution. Honestly, we're not. But the steady advance of robotics and AI is predicted to speed up in 2018. Automated AIs will rapidly become prominent and indispensable features of most industries (just as computers and the internet have done). Beyond 2018, life without automation AIs will increasingly become impractical and unprofitable.
So how can we expect things to unfold?
UK automation 'Breaking Point'
'Breaking Point' is the dramatic term used by the newspapers to describe what is actually a pretty steady process. Put simply, in 2018, companies which have automated will start seriously reaping the rewards of their investment. The efficiency brought by automation releases humans to do more important work. People freed from mundane, automated tasks are able to work more creatively towards advancing their businesses - and there is more money available to allow them to do so. All of this will pay off for automated companies in 2018 as automation hits critical mass...and non-automated companies will find themselves less able to compete.
Greater human control
This may seem like an odd prediction, following directly on from talk of the automation 'Breaking Point', but everything comes with checks and balances. The 'balance' here is likely to be an increased desire for human control over automated processes. This doesn't mean that humans will be getting directly stuck into those processes alongside machines. It will probably manifest as demands for more feedback, and more executive control (stopping, starting, and altering processes as and when needed). So we'll see a big uptake in remote monitoring systems and the like, especially if they include an element of remote control over processes. It's also likely that people will start making a serious effort to learn more about automation in 2018. Knowledge is power!
AI and Process Automation synergy
We're reaching a point where AI and Process Automation can be usefully integrated on an industrial and commercial level. The massive (and expanding) computation capacity now available, coupled with robot deep-learning algorithms (and massive volumes of data) make AI functions like speech and image recognition more viable for businesses. At the same time, AI software is becoming cheaper, and easier to integrate into processes. All of which holds some interesting implications for the future automation of commercial as well as industrial sectors.
However, the first area in which we'll see AI make significant inroads into automation is that of self-reporting and machine-learning. The installation of positive-feedback loops enables a system to become better at what it does. Currently, we often instruct automated processes to gather data on themselves, but in general we only ask them to communicate that data back to us. Over the next 12 months, we're likely to see more companies installing positive-feedback loops, enabling processes to use that data to actively improve their own operation.
I'm sure it's only a matter of time before one of the MASK crew in the know tell me that I should really have put Prescriptive Analytics under the above heading...but I think it's just about different and important enough to have its own portion of this blog.
Automated processes gather data and feed that data back to us, as mentioned. When something goes wrong, the process can tell us what went wrong, where, and why. They can even predict when something is about to go wrong. Prescriptive analytics takes this a step further - enabling the machine to warn the operator of an upcoming problem, and suggest a course of action based on past and present data. It may even be able to introduce that course of action itself. As prescriptive analytics become more common in automated processes, downtime will fall (as will maintenance and repair costs), and productivity will increase.
Finally, let's put one problem to rest:
Are robots going to take my job?
What's more likely is that your job will change into something more fulfilling. Good companies who have prepared properly for automation should retrain employees who show an interest. So, if your job gets automated, it's more likely that you'll end up a step higher on the ladder - working a less mundane, more fulfilling role.
Historically, panics about job-losses due to machines have never been fulfilled. What happens instead is that the job market shifts. For example, when textiles began to be made by machines on an industrial scale, rather than by individual weavers in cottages, the sheer volume of clothing produced created a whole host of new jobs. Clothing shops opened, needing managers, sales assistants, accountants, models, cleaners and everything else. Fashion magazines burst onto the scene. Later, when processes like bread making were industrialised, many found work in the newly burgeoning leisure and tourism industry - which arose as a direct result of the rise of the factories (not spending all day slowly working on subsistence tasks like baking gave people much more time to go to the seaside).
Nobody can fully predict what's going to happen in the next few years. But history certainly doesn't back the doom-and-gloom job-loss prophecies.
*The Rubicon is a shallow Italian river, which Julius Caesar deliberately broke the law in crossing while marching his army on Rome. If he crossed the Rubicon, he knew that there was no going back - he either had to win, or to be executed. It is THE classic Point Of No Return. Apologies for the phrase. Relating things to ancient battles is the only way our non-tecchy blogger can wrap her brain around this stuff!