In the vast depths of Australia there are mines rich in valuable minerals, but a shortage of willing workers. Luckily for the Australians, there are new solutions to their geographic troubles.
Huge computer-controlled trucks work tirelessly, transporting debris from the mines to the crushers, aided only by their maintenance engineers and remote operators. It’s not science fiction. It’s not even fiction. It’s the result of years of technological advances in electronics, computing and mechanics: mechatronics.
Automated machinery replacing human workers is nothing new – in the textile industry, the Luddites were sabotaging their mechanical counterparts as far back as the early 1800s. And the first industrial robot worked in a New Jersey General Motors car factory as early as 1962. It did spot welds on assembly lines.
These days, the use of more advanced robots in industry is fairly mainstream. Laser-guided suction cups milk cows that form their own orderly queues, and solar-powered weeders patrol fields by themselves, analysing plant life and pulling offending vegetation.
But what are the real business benefits?
Cheaper, safer and more efficient
While we can see automation as both a futuristic marvel and a handy way to avoid chores, it’s also proved a useful way for businesses to reduce their energy costs. Many of our steel servants are able to work more efficiently than we can.
Mechatronic machines can perform the same repetitive tasks far faster than a trained human. What’s more, they do them with greater precision and less waste, too. For industries that eat up energy, small efficiencies can translate into big savings.
But it’s not just mining and agriculture that can benefit from mechatronics. With no sick days, breaks, holidays or training periods, robots give a business almost 100% uptime. They need an initial outlay that is higher than what you’d pay for a human employee, but they have very low running costs. Humans, on the other hand, cost less to ‘put in place’, but our running costs include pensions, training, insurance – and salaries.
Robotic IT process automation – essentially computers using computer software themselves – can do many of the most time-consuming clerical and administrative tasks. This frees up time for your human workers to get on with more demanding jobs, like sales and customer relations.
So what can’t robots do?
To some, increasing automation might seem nightmarish. But we’re already comfortable with airlines’ autopilots and with driverless public transport systems, such as London’s Docklands Light Railway. Meanwhile, at least four American states have already passed legislation paving the way for driverless cars.
It’s long been thought that robots could never replace certain professionals. Doctors and lawyers, for example. But a company in Silicon Valley has already created a system that lets surgeons operate through online remote control from anywhere in the world. How much longer before the most basic of surgeries no longer require the human touch?
Do you think the increasing use of mechatronics is a good thing? Let us know how you see it affecting your business in the future.