The rise of the unmanned factory

September 03, 2019 11:33
It is forecast that factories around the world will introduce AI-powered robotic arms on a large scale within five years. Photo: Reuters

American Factory, the much-talked-about Netflix documentary about Fuyao Glass, a Chinese-owned manufacturing plant in Ohio, not only delves into the clash of cultures between Chinese and American workers but also explores the threat posed by automation to workers.

Despite warnings about the dawning of the unmanned factory era, workers still dominate the workplace. But the tipping point might have already arrived.

What has been holding back the widespread adoption of factory automation is inflexibility, along with the cost of adjustments.

Often, a specialized set of hardware and software is needed for each stage of the manufacturing process. This involves changes in the production design, and it is usually expensive to overhaul the system. This has kept human labor competitive.

However, the most powerful advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) is its self-learning ability, and the technology is developing fast.

Using self-learning algorithms, machines can work out the most efficient process based on the available tools and set targets in just a matter of hours. This can drastically cut down production costs.

In fact, several labs of universities and tech firms are already applying this technology. They include Germany’s Rizon, the United States' Industrial Perception, Japan’s Schaft and China’s KUKA.

Soon, smart robotics will be mass-produced and widely accepted by manufacturers.

It is forecast that factories around the world will introduce AI-powered robotic arms on a large scale within five years.

As depicted in the documentary, lots of factory jobs are repetitive and do not require much skill.

And no matter how dedicated and motivated workers are, sooner or later they won’t be able to match the efficiency of robots. Besides, machines won't set up a labor union; they won't demand higher pay or better benefits.

Right now, warehouses of Alibaba and Amazon are basically run by robots, and only a small number of workers are needed to operate the robots.

Factory automation could be a huge challenge for developed countries, and probably more so for China.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 2

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist