When NOT to automate

01 February 2008

Humans should do only those jobs that robotic equipment cannot, or that are too complex to program effectively. For example, at Mitsubishi’s Himeji Works automated winding machines form the stator windings from copper wire, but it takes exquisite eyehand co-ordination to slip the wire ends into the connectors. Current-generation robots can’t do it, so people must.

Some tasks need people
Some tasks need people

Of course, when anything goes wrong, robots have to call on people to help. Automated machinery is extremely capable when everything they have to deal with stays within tight tolerances.When parameters get too far out of bounds, robots do not have the flexibility to analyse the situation and make a plan for bringing it under control. Only humans can do that.

Finally, the cost of designing, installing, and programming automated production equipment typically is very high. To justify this expense, the resulting automated system has to produce a large number of units at reduced cost with little or no intervention. Human labour is largely a variable cost while automation is a fixed cost—once you make the investment, the equipment can build as many units as possible for little or no additional money. To compare the two, you must first amortise the automation costs across the number of units that the machine can reasonably be expected to produce during its service life. That is, estimate the number of units it is likely to produce before needing major overhaul or replacement, then divide that into the machine’s cost of ownership.

That done, you can compare apples to apples, because both costs are on a per-unit basis.When the task complexity is high, the automation cost can become extreme. In that case, the calculation will tell you that it’s less expensive to have humans to do the job.

In other cases, such as when products are highly customised, you’ll never sell enough units to pay for the automation. Again, the answer is to hire humans—perhaps even paying premium wages for expertise—to do the job.

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