Future of Automation in the Industrial Sector

In the months before the COVID-19 pandemic, a major Oil processing plant in South East Asia was managed by a few thousand personnel on site. After the lock down was announced, the number of personnel on site plunged significantly but the company continues to recover millions of barrels of oil every day with a marginal dip in the production. This variation was caused by the lower demand and not because of the depleted workforce. They were able to maintain with the production solely due to the investment in automation and digitization in recent years.

I believe in the post COVID-19 world, most of the industrial sectors will pivot their focus on automating critical functions to ensure the continuity of their businesses.

Companies will have to deploy massive protective measures to allow their employees to return to work. They will have to take personnel’s body temperature, meet social distancing norms, provide them with protective gear, additional medical insurance, and other government-imposed liabilities will increasingly prompt “employing” machines.

The rise of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and automation seems inevitable across all industries; for example, Power & Gas utilities are exploring options for remote operations of their generation plants in a limited capacity; automotive companies are focusing on automation for their body shop and assembly lines, and automation of machinery maintenance that requires manpower. Industrial companies will be identifying work that can automated through use of sensors that can predict breakdown well in advance. Once we see near normality, companies will try to minimize people coming to work, and the focus will be on allowing people who can work without social distancing.

If we look back in recent years, we have seen more automation and AI applications readied for effective use than ever before, it seems clear that the next few years will see more rather than less automation as the economy play its nail-biting game. During this crisis, AI will play a vital role as an array of mathematical models will take on countless business functions that would be said to require mature “intelligence”, whether it be planning, predicting, classifying, reasoning or problem-solving.

Automation is the road ahead for Industrial companies if they want to prevent future shutdowns. However, the financial position of the companies is a crucial factor in this shift. In addition to Robotics, AI and automation technologies, companies will also be looking to invest in cyber security and communication networks to provide a reliable and secure infrastructure to support automation and remote operations. Automation may mean a reduced number of the manpower, but it will require a new set of skilled people. I see companies investing in hiring data scientists and retaining technology consultants to support their automation initiatives.

Prior to the crisis, many pundits predicted that automation will generate “vast new opportunities for fulfilling people’s potential and aspirations.” Now there is proof that automation protects humans.

Last month we saw shares of two major robotics manufactures jumped; is this a glimpse of an uptrend coming for Robotics and Automation hardware and software providers?