The Future of Automation

During the 2020 A3 Business Forum, four industry leaders, Raj Batra with Siemens; Jon Battles with Amazon; Bob Hosler with Keyence; and Matt Vasey with Microsoft, spoke with A3’s Director of Education Strategies Robert Huschka about their insight and predications for the next decade and how we can prepare to take advantage of these opportunities.


Raj Batra
President, Digital Industries, Siemens USA

Jon Battles
Dir. Robotic Architect, Amazon

Bob Hosler
COO, Keyence Corporation of America

Matt Vasey
Senior Director, Artificial Intelligence, Microsoft


How Do We Prepare Now

Businesses don’t want to be left behind, and there are several key things we can do now, or help our customers do, to be prepared for the next five to ten years.

Manufacturing can suffer from an aging asset base, where technology can be thirty years old.  In order to digitalize, get over the stigma of cost, because everything is scalable.  Batra recommends moving forward by doing things virtually first before physically incorporating solutions.

Vasey urges us all to turn into learning organizations that celebrate ‘try and fail’ approaches rather than operating as ‘know it all’ thinkers.

Batra also touched on the workforce shift, noting in three years we’ll have the largest cohort demographic eligible to retire, which will signal a massive crew change.

“We’ll lose a lot of knowledge and it’s scary, so we’ll have to create an environment that’s attractive to a new workforce,” said Batra.  “They’re tech-savvy, and they’re capable, and they can do a lot and it’s just native to them to adopt and learn new technology.”

These are all advantages to you as automation grows and changes, so tuning in to culture changes can attract the right talent and keep them, ushering your company more smoothly through the digital transformation.

If you’re stuck and don’t know where to begin, starting somewhere small can help set you up for success.  Once several small initiatives are automated and incorporated successfully, it’s easier to see the big picture, and get the ‘higher ups’ to notice and buy in to the automation future.

Coming Technology: 5G, Vision, and Beyond

We’re heading into a personalized world – retail, clothes, cars – all can be customized to fit the consumers’ needs.  Batra said the safest place to be is in manufacturing, and the future of customization lends itself to connecting assets through industry 4.0.

Battles agreed that customization is important, and is seeing a theme of autonomous mobile reconfiguring in the manufacturing line.  He also compared advances in consumer goods, like smart refrigerators, to advances in factories.  Battles said he would die for that technology, and asked us to imagine a smart factory like a smart home.

Vasey explained that with more product being produced nearer to consumers, and making the cloud closer to the end point, speeds are down to 90 or even 10 milliseconds, which allows us the opportunity to apply more AI and mobile manufacturing.

Additionally, he said although the reality of 5G for industry is still a few years off, we need to make the decisions now.

“We can’t think of factories as isolated islands.  We have to create a continuum in systems, all the way up to the cloud,” said Vasey.

There’s a big difference in application scope compared to 20 years ago.  Hosler noted along with traditional checks, vision systems now allow measuring, microscopy, and are growing towards facial recognition for security features.  There’s coming applications for cosmetic inspections on a much larger scope and scale than ever before.

Industry Shifts

As mentioned previously, boomers are getting ready to retire. Other industry shifts include robotic process automation, semi-structured and unstructured environments, and small players in the game.

“Our workforce is very young, because a typical boomer doesn’t have a software mindset, they’re more hardware,” said Hosler.  “The new generation looks for software solutions, so if you’re a manufacturer that has old system hardware, and you lose the person with that knowledge, it’s a big risk.  So update now.”

The aging population also affects what we create.  The panelists discussed the emergence of more service robots, and augmented systems and software tools to allow for longer independence, especially in regards to autonomous vehicles.

In the realm of robotic process automation, Vasey noted automating existing physical systems will spark new enterprise, and expand predictive capabilities into this enterprise.  He said there is a proliferation of hardware acceleration for AI, and we should future-proof our hardware and our software for this change.

It was pointed out that in robotics, we’re really good at structured, but Battles continued that we’re moving to semi-structured environments where systems and robots need to do random things with AI and vision systems.  He also noted that now with autonomous mobile robots, we’re seeing the need to plan for unstructured thinking and environments.  According to Battles, we need domain-specific architectures, direct-edge AI, and cloud technologies.

As these trends move forward and the industry changes, Batra wants us all to keep in mind that bigger isn’t always better.  He says digital disruption is costing incumbent companies 45% of the market share.  Small players don’t have the bureaucracy that big companies have, and this all ties back to the cultural set up of older companies.  Technology is here and available, but big company culture is stopping the forward movement.  New, small companies are coming that can move faster, that are agile, and aren’t encumbered by hierarchy.

Final Thoughts

Even looking five years ahead, manufacturing and automation will change significantly.  By deploying some of the advice from our panel experts, we can stay competitive.  Keep in mind one of the most significant changes coming – baby boomers retiring starting in three years.

“Eight million boomers are leaving the workforce, and they are skilled laborers.  Within five years, we’ll need to re-train the workforce every two years,” said Battles.

Investing in compute power and software and being aware of emerging processes will help.  The industry share will drastically change, and the digital transformation will separate the winners from the losers.  Embrace this shift, encourage culture change, and automate more manufacturing.  Vasey believes as more robots align with humans, there will be more understanding and less fear.

The future of automation means smart products, connected products, and a connected world.