How Old is “Too Old”?

Upgrading Vs Swapping



When it comes to the world of automation controllers, it is important that a system perform as long as it possibly can. After all, what good is buying a new machine when a company has to shell out millions every few years for a full replacement? That being said, like all things, these systems have their own expiration date. Of course, that expiration time is not an exact number and very much depends heavily on multiple factors. Depending on the facility, management, operator, etc., an entire setup can potentially last up to 30 years if well maintained. In fact, while we are in the year 2022, there are numerous companies today that are still using equipment from the 1980’s with some going back further than that!

“When Should I Upgrade?”

Upgrading your system is a large undertaking for any company. Not only is the cost to upgrade something to really consider. Businesses also have to account for operations, deadlines, and return on investment (ROI). When thinking about upgrading your equipment, some important factors to think about include:

Production Challenges
If you are seeing a higher volume in sales and your current setup cannot meet the rise in demand, then it may be time to consider upgrading. Newer machines can output product at a faster rate.

Labor
Labor is often one of the largests costs when it comes to business operations. Not only are we talking about the base wage of an employee, but also the cost of training. Some fields of work have high turnover rates which makes having to hire and train new employees a constant and expensive venture. Some uprgrades are available that now automate certain tasks once perfomed by employees.

Cost
While the upfront cost might end up being quite a steep price to pay. In the long term, upgrading your equipment can give a business the competitive edge it needs to produce products faster, higher quality, and more efficiently thus saving money on the back end.

Expansion
As a company expands, the prospects of upgrading and automating certain aspects of the production is can not only help saving money in any long-term costs that comes with expansion, but also maintain quality control as the company grows.

Waste
The production of waste is not only an issue that comes with potential environmental and legal rammifications, but also with economical ones as well. The accountability of letting environmental waste go unchecked has long-lasting and very expensive repurcussions. Upgrading to newer equipment can also mean a reduction in waste production as well.

Better Precision
Newer equipment also tends to be more precise with higher accuracy in manufacturing which aids in the produciton of more complex components.

“What if Upgrading Isn’t Worth It?”

As previously mentioned, the greatest obstacle when it comes to upgrading is the upfront costs. Usually companies with enough capital can make these upgrades. Some companies with more limited capital may make incremental upgrades. However, there are plenty of businesses out there that simply do not have the sort of capital needed to commit to upgrading their equipment. This is especially challenging when a company’s equipment suddenly breaks down and needs replacing. The dire need for operations to continue means small turn around times (if any) for machines to be shut down. While this is happening, a company can lose huge sums of money from not having product to sell. Therefore many companies want whatever the quickest turn around time possible to get production back up.

One alternative solution for companies with smaller budgets is to just buy refurbished and certified pre-owned equipment from vendors. The advantage of this being that most components are able to be hot swapped. This allows you to just purchase and replace the broken part and not have invest in completely new machinery. Another advantage of this is that a company can save a lot of time and money by not having their technician needing to learn an entirely new system. Especially when going from a setup that was installed 30 years ago to the newest one.

The End Cost

It is important to take note that when replacing with pre-owned/used parts, these are in fact; used. It is good to make sure a refurbished vendor tests the product before selling it. Some vendors offer, warranties and have return policies in place. That being said, you’re still working with old equipment. The lifespan of used or refurbished items will not have the same longevity as new parts. This means the cost you were hoping to save by a simple part replacement may again end up costing you more down the road.

Ultimately, it is up to the owner to weigh the pros and cons. Afterwards they have to think about long vs short term solutions and if the cost is worth it.

“They Terk Urr Jurrbs!”: Automation Changing Employment

For those who are not familiar with meme culture or are avid viewers of the long-running Comedy Central show, “South Park”, the title of this article is a call-back to an episode in which the residents of the titular town express outrage in losing their jobs to immigrants–from the future year of 3045–who travels to the present to find employment. These “time immigrants” are willing to work for lower wages than their present-time counterparts. They then send money back to their families–in the future. As absurd as this plot sounds, the story’s overarching theme reflects timeless anxiety that resides in the American psyche: job security. Anxiety that bleeds well into today’s world of automation.

US History with Job Loss Anxiety

Job loss and labor replacement are not anything new to Americans. Since this country’s inception, companies have been looking for ways to increase profit for the lowest cost possible. As any entrepreneur can testify, one of the biggest costs for business operations is labor. If the past reveals anything about our history with labor, it will show that it has been….tedious….at best. Since the abolishment of slavery, affordable labor has always been an objective for many business ventures. Often this manifested itself by companies hiring various immigrant groups and having them work for low wages, then firing them in favor of another immigrant group willing to work for less.

Of course as one would imagine this created great anxiety among an already struggling socioeconomic group, which led to numerous conflicts between different immigrant groups over labor issues. One example of such is the treatment of Chinese immigrants during the 1800s. Not only did these migrant workers deal with laws that targeted Chinese people such as the Chinese Exclusion Act. Often Irish workers, frustrated with being replaced, would lash out and attack these migrants from China.

This also doesn’t consider that this was also taking place while the US was going through its Industrial Revolution and the mass migration of people leaving farms and moving to urban areas only to have to compete for jobs amongst each other. These events all happening simultaneously, stand to highlight the underlying fear of job insecurity and foreshadowed what was to come.

An Early Era Warning of Automation

During the 1930s, British economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted rapid technological progress within 90 years. Industrialized countries were openly embracing technology as a way of job growth for many. Keynes, however, warned of what he referred to as “technological unemployment”. Rather than the optimistic outlook that technology would expand job growth, it would instead shrink the number of available jobs for employees. Keynes went as far as to refer to technological unemployment as a “disease” that would be afflicting the world. Now almost a century later, Keynes’s predictions appear eerily true.

Automation and the 1950s

Despite the ideal iconography that the 1950s invokes for a number of people, the decade had its own brand of challenges. The mid-50s found itself in what would be described as the worst “economic slump since the Great Depression”. Companies like Caterpillar and General Motors were laying off employees by the thousands as they made deeper investments in automation. In a 1958 article, The Nation described America’s transition towards automation as: “stumbling blindly into the automation era with no concept or plan to reconcile the need of workers for income and the need of business for cost-cutting and worker-displacing innovations.”

The AI Age of Automation

The 1980s saw another leap in the world of automation with the introduction of AI technology. The developments in artificial intelligence meant that machines now could work autonomously to an extent without the need for a human controller. This changed the game across multiple industries because now this meant that (at least in certain aspects) where an operator would need to stop, the machine would not have to. This also changed the game in regard to the tradition of employment equilibrium. In the early days changing the workforce simply meant trading out one group of employees for another. Also, in previous decades, despite machines becoming more prominent and replacing the jobs of employees in labor. By in large they still required human operators to make them function. Essentially, while they replaced jobs held by humans, they in turn created jobs to be filled by people as well.

Artificial Intelligence removed the need for humans to be manually manipulating the process, to an extent becoming its own operator. Also, despite these new AI machines still requiring an operator, the expertise of an operator needed became much higher. AI specialization meant a narrowing in jobs available to lesser-skilled employees.

Automation’s Full Throttling During the Pandemic

For the majority of people around the world, the Covid 19 pandemic has been an unprecedented event unlike any other. In less than a month, millions of people lost their jobs, and businesses across various industries were forced to shut down. With unemployment at its highest since the Great Depression, remaining businesses had to find ways to adapt their daily operations to this new global situation. Companies started looking toward automation as a way to fill the employment gap. Restaurants replaced their cashiers with self-service kiosks. With the mandates of social distancing, grocery stores leaned into curbside-service apps, with some even using robots to run items out to customers. This switch to automation goes beyond the scope of the service industry. Hospitality, manufacturing, and healthcare have all switched to implementing automation in positions that were once held by human employees.

While it is easy to presume that the pandemic is the leading cause of this wave of unemployment, one New York Times article writes that upwards of 300 global companies had already projected to replace their staff with automation up to 43 percent. This means that this shift towards automating labor was expected to happen, but the pandemic just expedited the process.

An AI algorithm automates taking drive thru orders.


Automation vs The Human Condition

While it may seem that automation is on the verge of outmoding all the jobs held by people, the element of the human experience is our biggest pushback against this future. People want to be able to walk into their local coffee shop and converse with their baristas. How many of us try to impatiently dial through an automated call just to speak to a customer representative? Despite statistics showing that automated vehicles have a lower rate of driver error than people, federal and state laws are being written to restrict automated driving. This is because while yes, machines make more calculative driving decisions. The ability of these machines to adapt and make human-valued decisions are practically non-existent. Not to mention the question of liability should something occur.

The 2003 film, IRobot, portrays a((n)albeit extreme) version of this dilemma. Will Smith’s character, Del, gets into a life-threatening car accident that also involves a 12-yr-old girl. The robot on the scene makes a calculated decision to save Del instead of the child concluding that Del’s chance of survivability was higher. In short, the machine isn’t capable of complying with our human values. Hopefully, it is our value of the human experience that will continue to stem back the push toward automation, and in turn, help alleviate much of the job anxieties that many have.

Diversity in the Engineering Field

Opening Summary

The last decade has seen a huge shift in the way diversity plays a role in companies, with the lessons of diversity and inclusion being taught at more company meetings, and more team-wide open discussions. Often the question of: “Why should there even be conversations about diversity in the workplace?”, comes up in professional spaces. It is easy to dismiss the concepts of diversity and inclusion as simple ‘virtue signaling’ and there are numerous companies performing “diversity theatre”. However, when you get past the superficial and performative layers, there are valid points to make in regards to workplace diversity. The topic of diversity is very controversial, ironically invoking a rather diverse range of emotions and thoughts. The concept of diversity in itself is more complex than just “Oh hey, this person looks different from me so I need to work with them”.

This article will attempt to cover various issues among three demographics. While the issues being written are NOT the only obstacles facing these groups, they are the most common ones.

LGBTQ in the WorkPlace

For decades members on the LGBTQ community have experienced many obstacles in the workplace in regards to discrimination. While this form of discrimination is found across multiple industries, engineering fields such as automotive are historically known to promote that form of discrimination. This has speculated to be due to in part there being a “car guy” culture within the work environment. In an article written by Jeremy Alicandri for Forbes, Alicandri notes that a Ford Foundation-backed study found that 1 in 4 LGBTQ employees experienced discrimination or bullying in the workplace. Another study by Out Leadership, found that 47 percent LGBTQ employees experienced micro aggressions that resulted in 70 percent deciding to cover up or mask their LGBTQ characteristics.

So the question remains: Why is it important to change the work place culture?

The same Forbes article addresses the issue through a pragmatic lense. That is simply that by not including and changing the culture for LGBTQ members, a company is inevitably going to lose money. This comes in the form of both employees and consumers.

From an employment perspective, the loss of valuable talent due to discrimination in the workplace is a huge oversight for a company to make. Potentially a company could lose out on something innovative that would have yielded sizable profits all because they allowed for discrimination to happen in the work place. One example of this is of Dr. Lynn Conway, professor ameritas at Michigan State University. Conway began employment at IBM in 1964, but was fired in 1968 after it was discovered that she was transgendered. Dr. Conway speculates that it was out of fear of the company’s public image if it were discovered that they had a transgendered employee. She was hired by several other organizations (Xerox, MIT, and even the Dept of Defense) over the years and became the top scientists in her field, contributing to innovative technology that are still used in computers today.

Women in Engineering

In an online publication from the University of California, Riverside, the number of women currently working in the field of engineering is about 14 percent. This is a big leap from the 1980’s when the numbers were closer to 5.8 percent. While the number of female employees is on the rise in the field of engineering overall, there are still barriers and challenges that face women in the work place. One of the challenges that women still face are having enough role models in the work force that younger employees can look up to for guidance. Just as much as women are entering the engineering field, many women are leaving just as fast because companies are not flexible. Therefore it still leaves a huge disparity in the number of women in higher managment and leadership positions that more junior female employees can look up to when entering the engineering field.

Another issue is that while more companies are starting to implement policies and changes that can accomodate women in regards to allowing them to be able to balance their work with their family responsibilities, there are still a lot of companies that don’t have effective accomodations for things like maternity leave and needing to leave work for childrent-related issues.

Racial Diversity in Engineering

According a report by the Stem Education Journal (SEJ), STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) is currently the fastest growing occupational cluster in the US, with engineering being second only to the medical field. However, while a lot of companies are calling for racial diversity, at the same time positions in the STEM field continue to stagnate due to long employee retention by companies. While this is generally seen as a positive in regards to companies valuing their employees, at the same time it is presenting the issue of majority demographic within companies.

A 2019 report released by Georgetown University, found that despite making up a third of the population, the number of Black and LatinX people only made up about 14 percent of employees in the engineering field, while Asians made up 16 percent, and White employees making up 61 percent. Additionally, report goes on to cover the income disparity between racial groups with Black and LatinX employees making 15-18 percent above the average of a bachelor degree holder, while Asian and White employees make 61 – 71 percent more. Further research had also shown that in order to close the wage gap, Black and LatinX employees generally have to gain a graduate degree to make close to what Asian/White employees would make with undergraduate degrees.

One contributing factor begins in high schools where Black and LatinX students attend schools that do not have access to classes that would ideally set them on right career path towards engineering. One example the study shows is that the subject of Calculus tends to be absent in many high schools that are predominantly Black and LatinX students. To address this inequity, some robotics programs like the one in University of Michigan, are changing the curriculum to push Calculus back to later years and starting Freshman off in more linear-based math such as Algebra, as it is something that is more commonly accessible in public high schools.

Conclusion

In his 2005 book, “The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty First Century”, economist and author, Thomas L. Friedman covers the economic “flattening of the world” or more simply, globalization. Friedman highlights the inevitibility of interconnectivity between countries and cultures, which the world has seen more of nearly two decades after his book’s release. This highlights the importance of diversity from a pragmatic lense.

An article from UNC Pembroke, highlights a study done by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on the growth of a business from diversity. Research from the study showed that companies that had higher averages for innovation also had higher diversity averages as opposed to companies with lower diversity averages. Gender diverse groups tend to out perform more gender homogenous groups by 50 percent. The article also cites a study by McKinsey and Company, showing that companies that scored in the to 25 percent for racial/culture diversity also were 25 – 36 percent more likely to bring in larger financial returns.

Ultimately what these studies are pointing to is that for a company wanting to play the long game, adapting to cultural shifts as opposed to getting locked into culture battles, is better for business.

Digitalizing Automation For the Future

A Brief History

For the longest time, automation has always been the end-goal process when it comes to industrialization. That is that the user can quickly and efficiently complete a process repeatedly. Whether that process involves production or maintenance, the last two decades have seen a monumental rise in digitalization across numerous industries. Of course, digitalization is not a stranger to the world of automation machinery (and it would be incorrect to conflate that one is the opposite of the other). As it stands, all of the major industrial companies have some form of proprietary software that they use to automate their machinery and it’s been that way for several decades. However, in research done by Forrester, 77% of businesses today still rely on a paper process, with only 63% still using spreadsheet programs. Ultimately, this makes it more difficult to keep up with customer demands, and really wanting for a more streamlined process.

Automation and Digitalization

What is Automation?

Automation physically performs a process without the constant need of a human operator. Its tasks are dedicated by a group of rules preset by an operator usually in the form of either script commands or more robust software pending on what the task is.

What is Digitalization?

Digitalization is basically the process of taking a hard copy of something and converting it into a digital format. This could be anything from a worded manual or even a photo. Digitalizing is crucial to automation because it is how an automated process interprets data to commit to a function. The last few decades have seen a progression in the control of industrial automation from manual to digital.

The Possibilities

One example of how digitalization can streamline automation is through the way tasks and functions are being given to a piece of industrial equipment. For the longest time, equipment like automoted robots in manufacturing have been relying on external devices like PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers) to output individual commands. These are all multiple components linked together on a bus and then connected to the drive and other components. This is the current setup for a lot of industrial and manufacturing operations.

While this setup does get the job done, it does present a few issues.

For starters, communication is one of the most important things when automizing. When multiple components come into play, there is always the chance of communication issues between devices. This can be attributed to various issues, like conflicting software between the devices or even simply how something is connected. There is also the issue of troubleshooting and trying to figure out the cause of an existing issue. With digitalization, instead of having a bunch of devices trying to talk to one another, there can be just one fully-integrated device using a single software. Having instant diagnostics would also cut down on troubleshooting time.

A Little Thing Called BIM

One piece of digitalization that could potentially change the way automation works is actually a technology that is becoming more prominent in the field of architecture and engineering called BIM (Building Information Modeling). What is BIM? In short, BIM is a digitalized way to create and manage data in the design, construction, and operation of products. Often it is used by architects, engineers, and construction working on sophisticated buildings. It allows for multiple teams to collaborate in real-time as they are working on a project. The same technology could virtually model the layout of a factory and could share accurate data in real-time across multiple teams.

Imagine an entire manufacturing setup being represented by a virtual model that is constantly sharing diagnostics of the equipment. If something were to break down or get faulty, the diagnostic could alert the technician, and using the virtual model, they can get a better visual representation of what is causing the issue and where it can be found. Simultaneously an alert can be sent out across different departments so that different teams can quickly communicate and come up with solutions to the problem. This in turn saves time on labor and the cost of troubleshooting.

Final Thoughts

Automation has always been and continues to be the end goal for many companies across multiple industries. With digitalization allowing for the process to function more autonomous than ever, it seems we are moving further along into a world of unfettered interconnectivity. As the digitalization of automation continues to progress, the acknowledgment of anxiety over its effects on human employees cannot be ignored. If everything is fully automated and more streamlined, what place does the employee have?

One issue that we need to consider is how automation will affect socioeconomics. From an optimistic point of view, one could argue that the present automation has already done away with a lot of the ‘human element’, and the margins of laying off workers would be small, especially when a company could train up employees to learn the technology.

On the other hand, we’re talking about a situation where only a handful of positions are available. Often, a company would rather onboard someone who already has experience rather than train an existing employee. Automation could pessimistically mean that both low-skilled and specialized employees both have a hard time finding work. On one end when most of the general tasks can be automated why would a company need to hire humans? Not to mention that exists a ceiling with just how many specialized jobs exist versus how many specialized employees compete to fill those seats. This is an existing issue we can see across multiple tech sector positions today.

What the solution is, remains to be seen. While the advancement of automation is crucial to productivity, it is something that should be treated cautiously in regards to how it affects the working person.