When I first started in this business roughly 22 years ago, manufacturers used automation as a tool to increase production, speed up processes and improve cost effectiveness. It was not the norm to employ automation to drive sustainability. The desire to get costs down was enough to cause many manufacturers to seek better conditions overseas. The prevailing thought was to take advantage of the low cost labor force offered by Mexico, China, India and other countries.
Fast forward to today and things have evolved to a point where almost every automation project we are involved with has some component of sustainability. We help automate manufacturing processes that: assemble aircraft that deliver greater fuel efficiency; create recycling systems that sort recyclable material out of a waste stream; and generate alternative energy, or co-generation processes that utilize a waste stream to create energy. Automation technology plays a significant role in being able to do these things safely, reliably and competitively.
I will stop short of saying that automation is driving these things, or even that manufacturers are driving these initiatives—though in some cases they are. Generally, the driver is the great balance that we in the United States enjoy between capitalism and government regulation. The bottom line here is that U.S. citizens care about the environment, and automation enables manufacturers to deliver on the demands put on them and to remain competitive in doing so. This is evidenced in the fact that we now actually have a term called “reshoring,” where manufacturers are returning to the U.S.