Publisher’s Perspective: Automation and Social Responsibility

Jan. 23, 2012
I have come to believe that innovation and automation have a far deeper reach into our society than just the future of job creation.

Having just spent my first year in the automation space as Publisher of this magazine, I have wrestled with many outsiders who learn what I do and comment (erroneously, I have come to believe) that automation costs jobs.  

I have read up much on the subject, and the best piece I have found is The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation’s excellent Innovation Policy Blog. In an entry from last summer 2011 titled: “Technology and Automation Create, Not Destroy Jobs,” Analyst Stephen Ezell concludes:

“So what the U.S. economy needs to restore job growth is a serious national innovation and competitiveness strategy that makes investments in U.S. R&D and innovation; enforces our trade agreements and boosts our exports; lowers effective corporate tax rates, ideally through incentives to invest here; improves physical and digital infrastructure; and embraces the power of technology (particularly IT) to transform and to make more efficient entire sectors of the economy. The evidence is clear: technology is part of the job creation solution; not part of the problem.”

I have come to believe that innovation and automation have a far deeper reach into our society than just the future of job creation.

Indeed, if you take a wider view, when you look at population growth and increasingly scarce resources, automation does and will continue to play a crucial role in preserving the planet’s natural resources, but also help stabilize our global community as well.

In a recent interview, Hans Beckhoff, founder and primary strategist of Beckhoff Automation, echoed these thoughts: “Engineers have a social duty to improve efficiency…. In order to ensure the prosperity of an increasing world population that continues to grow, in view of increasingly scarce resources, we have to significantly increase the efficiency of the complete production process.”

Hans Beckhoff is not just concerned with the energy efficiency of the production process. Even more important areas are raw material efficiency and overall production efficiency. “The challenge is to control machines intelligently such that improved control technology increases machine output, so that more products can be produced with less raw material…. Realistically, saving 100 watts of power dissipation in the control technology isn’t that important. The key is to maximize the control intelligence in the machine, in turn to optimize the production process.”

Production methods must be optimized with urgency in view of a growing world population with relatively limited resources that has increasing prosperity expectations in newly industrialized countries. If we don’t succeed, humankind will increasingly struggle with resource distribution challenges, no doubt associated with a number of political problems that also result in significant and explosive reactions from the populace. “This is the reason for the high social responsibility that engineers truly carry today,” Beckhoff said. “With this in mind, it is clear that our common future directly and essentially depends on engineers and their ingenuity to help preserve societal order.”

I witnessed this first-hand in my job as publisher of another magazine, Healthcare Packaging. Drug delivery packaging, highly visible in the landfill, was the target of early sustainability efforts.  A few years later, most admit that packaging’s footprint is small compared with the raw materials, energy and scrap produced when making the inhaler or syringe.  Efficient design, wise choice of materials and intelligent manufacturing had a far greater impact on the “sustainability” of the delivery device—far beyond packaging.

Pretty heady stuff, I know. And I’m not saying that automation engineers are vying for superhero status, but what you do is important in ways that aren’t always recognized.  We at Automation World know that, and intend to do everything we can to help you get the job done.

Jim Chrzan, [email protected], is Publisher of Automation World and Healthcare Packaging magazines.

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