Many of the terms that describe technology developments were first born at a trade show. In 2014, the term “Industry 4.0” was touted by Dr. T. (James Truchard, former president and CEO of National Instruments) at NI Week. He brought the term home from that year’s Hannover Messe show in Germany. Around the same time, the term Internet of Things (IoT) came to life at a trade show.
This year, I heard the term Democratization of Automation all over the floor at the Automate show.
The show features tons of robots, end effectors, motors, AMRs, AGVs, you name it. A good portion of the products were aimed at small- to mid-size enterprises (SMEs).
The term Democratization of Automation seems to capture three congruent trends:
- Robots and automation systems have become less expensive.
- The equipment is easier to configure – you don’t need a ton of original programming.
- The dearth of workers is forcing small manufacturers to seek automation.
Everybody Can Afford Robots Now
There were some in-your-face examples of the trend in lower automation costs. At the igus booth, the company had about six robots on display. Each one had its price prominently on display. Each price was less than $10,000. Michael Rielly, the company’s head of public relations, explained this was a new tactic designed to show how inexpensive automation can be.
Even Siemens -- a company known for its massive automation projects with the largest companies in automotive, aerospace, and consumer goods -- emphasized its involvement with smaller manufacturers. Barbara Humpton Siemens USA president and CEO, liked the term, Democratization of Automation. Asked whether Siemens was getting more involved with small manufacturers, she noted that Siemens has long done 85% of its business with small- to mid-size companies.
Humpton agreed that automation has become more accessible. “The most exciting thing about automation is that in the past you had to have EEs to do it. Now it’s as intuitive as your phone,” she told Design News. “Multigenerational teams work together on automation. The people who have been at for decades have priceless knowledge, but digital natives have a great ability to adapt to new technology.” She noted that using multi-player video games can be a decent training ground for virtual collaboration on automation.
The Proliferation of Automation Marketplaces
Another indication of the expansion of the automation market is the number of relatively new automation marketplaces. We’ve seen marketplaces launched by igus, Universal Robots, and Digi-Key. These marketplaces conveniently bring together products from multiple vendors: end-effectors, robots, vision systems, and software platforms for control. This is a giant step away from the single-shop automation systems of the past.
The new SME manufacturers are not aiming to integrate an entire production line. They’re much more likely to build their automation station-by-station, mixing and matching vendors. Their integrator may be the tech help at an automation marketplace, and the equipment instruction is probably going to involve a series of YouTube videos. The increasing sophistication and ease of use of technology have opened a Wild West of automation solutions. It’s the Democratization of Automation indeed.