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Future of Automation: Making A Difference

I laid out the plan for this issue with the idea of exploring some important trends pointing to automation’s role in the future of manufacturing.

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While a science fiction vision of future manufacturing may be interesting to some, I wanted to look into some things that are real now that you can apply to help bring your manufacturing into the 21st Century.

Apart from the fact that I’m an optimist in the face of pessimism, I’d just like to offer a voice in contrast to what you read in the “mainstream” media. These outlets fixate on the idea of the death of manufacturing in America. All of these articles you see are just plain wrong. Not that there aren’t problems with the business model or with the vision of some of our manufacturing companies.

Certainly, some companies may die, but others will take their place. I was at the Yokogawa Corp. of America User Conference May 19-20, where founder and former chief executive officer Terry Jones spoke on innovation. At one point, he mentioned that change and technology may not kill a business, but it will kill a business model. We are in such a period of time in automotive manufacturing. I believe that the U.S. market—the world’s largest—is saturated. The demand for quality resulted in cars that last longer. We can go several years between car purchases. Sooner or later, that had to catch up to the companies. The Chinese and Indian markets have not yet ramped up, so there is a shakeout.

Look at some changing and unchanging models in the automotive market. Typically, a transition period of technology and business models precipitates small entrepreneurial companies to spring up with new ideas, technologies and target markets. Thus, while Detroit’s Big Three and most other car companies focused on their traditional product and manufacturing models, some serious inventors decided that technology had progressed to the point that an electric car was feasible—and the Tesla was born. Toyota and Honda have jumped into the fray. Ford is making noises. GM is wishing. Chrysler is left wondering who will own it and who will be leading it.

Go a new way

Most disappointing to me is GM’s failure to exploit the promise of the Saturn—a new way to build a car, or at least that’s what the company said. Rather than work with manufacturing to adapt new manufacturing methods to get away from build-to-stock rather than build-to-order, it is evaluating shutting down more factories close to the market and importing cars built in China. That is a short-term solution to a long-term problem.

The business model of ethanol manufacturing shook out even faster. Driven more by farm state political realities than by economics, companies rushed to build plants to convert grain corn into vehicle fuel. The problem is, it takes more energy to make the fuel than the value of the fuel. That’s not to mention that using all of the grain for fuel has the effect of driving up the cost of food. Further, we probably can’t grow enough corn to put a significant dent in our appetite for imported oil.  And neither does it do much to promote sales of electric cars.

So, when Wes Iversen volunteered to take on the task of reporting on the latest manufacturing strategies in pharma manufacturing, the results were gratifying. Here is an industry under fire for its blockbuster style of marketing and the resulting high price for drugs adapting to a new way of manufacturing using the latest technologies and methods. This should make pharma manufacturers more responsive to the market and get more products out at a less expensive price point. Yes, manufacturing can make a difference.

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