Coming soon to your plant: Iron Man

In this Big Picture Interview, Michael Davies says that advances in robotics, automation will reshape the workforce – really.

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Michael Davies is chairman of Endeavour Partners, a Cambridge, MA-based consultancy that advises top global technology companies on business strategy and innovation. He’s also a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the London Business School, teaching on topics related to leadership and strategy in technology businesses. He spoke with Plant Services about the trends enabling a revolution in automation and the workforce implications of these.

PS: At IFS’ World Conference in May, you said industry is on the cusp of huge changes, thanks to automation advances that enable smarter decision-making. Can you elaborate?

MD: We think something very deep and profound is happening. It’s not (about) just having a bunch of data; it’s being able to do stuff with it intelligently. The consistent thing that runs through all of this is that all of these things have become easy to do – so it’s not just that I can write an algorithm; in principle, that was always possible. It’s the fact that people who are end users or people who are specialists in a domain rather than specialists in computer science – somebody who knows about a plant, somebody who knows about plant services – can do stuff rather than having to rely upon a Ph.D. in computer science. We’re putting power in the hands of end users because we’re making this stuff easier to do. And we’re also reducing the cost by an order of magnitude.

If you think of this combination of smartphones and connectivity and the cloud and Big Data algorithms together as a platform, with that in place, you can change how people do their work relatively easily. You can integrate with the data.

I’m working on a book that will be coming out (about) how making information available to whomever for whatever, whenever, and wherever you want changes the economy and society. We think that this combination of things is as powerful a combination as a steam engine or the automobile. The nature of general-purpose technologies is there’s all sorts of things you can do with them, and until they come along, you can’t even imagine all of the possible uses.

In an industrial environment, think about this: If you have technology that tells you exactly where every worker in the plant is at any given moment, and you put that technology together with a headset with a heads-up display [as with smartglasses], managers can look and see, hey, our sensors here are detecting an organic compound leak; I can see there are eight people nearby; I can send alerts that flash in front of their eyes to say “get out of there”; and then I can track their location.

PS: You talk about the possibility of this platform allowing a lot fewer people to get a lot more things done. Where and when you see that happening?

MD: That doesn’t happen overnight. It happens progressively. There’s an economic consequence, and there’s an individual consequence, and there are going to be some profound social issues we’ll have to deal with.

If I can figure out how to automate something, then I don’t need to outsource it. The costs drop. We’ve seen some of our clients say: “You know what? I need to stop my outsourcing program, where I’m trying to offshore stuff, and I’m going to focus on automating it, but I’ll keep it here.”

The thing that we’ve picked up on as being most important about robotics – and this is going to take a little longer because it’s in an earlier stage – is (companies) are ... not taking all of the people out, but they’re enabling one worker to do the work of 10. 

This is sort of the plant worker as superhero: I have X-ray vision through my Google Glass (smart glasses), showing me what is inside something and all of the background information about it; I have a tracker that lets me see where I am and where all of my co-workers are; I'm wearing an exoskeleton that gives me vastly superior strength; I'm operating in an environment where I can see what all of the environmental sensors around me are doing; I've actually got biosensors on me which will alert and set off massive alarms if something happens to me. And I have my faithful robotic superdog following me around carrying 200 pounds of specialized gear. That sounds like science fiction. You could build that system today. And it wouldn't cost the earth.

PS: And who wouldn’t want to be Iron Man?

MD: Yeah! So maybe this is plant worker as Iron Man. The issue we'll have to deal with is a whole bunch of reskilling because it may be that you can raise individual productivity enormously. We have to think about what we do with the people who were previously doing these jobs. We will have to think hard about the long-term social consequences.


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