Autonomous vehicles won’t just change our roads, they’ll change our factories, too

March 8, 2018

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By Bobby Bono and Carolyn Lee

Automating the movement of materials within manufacturing operations is nothing new. Indeed, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), conveyors, sorters and shuttles have been moving and handling materials, parts and product for decades. But now, thanks to advancements in sensor technology, 3D camera systems, software and artificial intelligence, these machines are increasingly capable of seeing their environments and, more importantly, learning to identify what they’re seeing. More and more, factories are becoming home to “free-range” robots capable of working beside humans wherever they’re needed.

Increasingly, semi-autonomous and even autonomous vehicles within manufacturing operations are gaining independence. Materials-handling robots in particular are making aggressive moves, most notably in warehouses and inventory management. Amazon, which has ramped up its warehouse automation, is a prime example. Just consider that, since 2014, Amazon has hired 50,000 new human workers at its warehouse facilities—while also adding 30,000 robots to work with them.

Adoption of semi- and fully autonomous vehicles by manufacturers is trending upward, but still has a long way to go. According to “Industrial mobility: How autonomous vehicles can change manufacturing,” a new study from PwC and The Manufacturing Institute, only 9% of manufacturers use semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicles within their operations today. Yet an additional 11% plan to do so in the next three years.

While a 20% adoption rate in three years may seem trifling, it nevertheless would appear to put autonomous vehicles on a path toward the technological mainstream (considered by some to be attained at 30% adoption). Interestingly, of those companies adopting semi-autonomous vehicles within their operations, about four in five have yet to experiences cost savings in materials handling as a result of doing so, and the remainder saw costs savings of at least 10%.

As growth in the automated materials handling equipment market accelerates, it may well be—contrary to some conventional fears—that the hiring of humans working in the industry will also trend up. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs growth in transportation and materials handling is forecast to grow by 4.8% in the 10 years through 2024 (latest available data) adding 466,000 to the 9.7 million that existed in 2014 (compared to a total growth projection of 6.5% across all occupations over that period). However, these (human) jobs may well look different than the ones existing today, as robot populations grow on warehouse and factory floors.

That underscores how important it will be for manufacturers to ensure spending on autonomous machines is matched by investments in human capital. Those manufacturers adopting semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles will likely do so over years. However, forming a talent strategy around mobility now might be a wise preemptive move to best exploit mobility adoption as it unfolds over the coming years. With this in mind, some workforce skills new adopters will likely need to focus on include safety skills, new workflow management, software programming, as well as specialized training from vehicle vendors. Indeed, getting a workforce more well-prepared to work among more independent vehicles will take time. Why not start sooner than later?

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