Sunday, February 3, 2013

Robotic PMP?

We learned recently (on a 60 Minutes broadcast) that robotic assembly of cars in the United States happens at an equivalent labor rate of about $4/hr, and the quality is all but flawless.

In other industries, like warehouse management and distribution, the results are almost as startling. At that rate, no wonder manufacturing is returning from overseas... but without the jobs attached -- they go to robots.

Really, anything that is structured and can be described with procedural instructions and criteria is amenable to robots; but we saw in IBM's WATSON project that 'big data' analysis is also amenable to machine processing.

Project robotics
So, what about projects, and more to the point, project jobs? There is already a track record:
  • Automated testing robots have been around for decades; they are better now, and methods like Agile depend upon them
  • Likewise, there have been code writing robotic programs for a long time
  • Spreadsheet macros have been doing work for 30 years
  • Assembly robots of various types are used to construct hardware prototypes and pre-production project models and proof of concept models
On the other hand, the true thinking jobs are not in danger... yet! But what about CAD programs? How 'auto' is AutoCad? With libraries of modular stuff, CAD programs can/will be able to come up with some unique stuff, though I'm not sure today's Steve Jobs is endangered. The creative stuff still needs creators. But then the robotic possibilities take over.

Certainly a lot of project administration can be robotically handled... it's very procedural and repetitive. And, some structured analysis is similarly a candidate.

The fact is that our industry, like all others, will be constantly pushed for productivity, quality, and lower cost, all in the same package. Presumably that's what agile is about; that's what all manner of streamlining is about in DoD (several years ago almost all the MIL specifications were dropped in favor of ANSI and other industry standards); and that's what other process control paradigms are about as they are applied further up the intellectual food chain.

Robotics will push the bar on acceptable quality, even in one-offs. The ISO requirements will tighten, even as applied to projects... and, customers will not want to pay a differential price for this. In this regard, Moore's Law is at work -- half the price for twice as much

Maybe we should all be re-reading Clayton Christensen!

In part, the defensive strategy is offensive in nature: constantly engage in personal improvement; in effect, never stop learning, inquiring, expanding your repertoire.


And, Georgia Tech strikes back at 60 Minutes! In a rebuttal, researcher Henrik I. Christensen, the Kuka Chair of Robotics at Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Computing, asserts that in the balance, in the longer term, robotics brings more jobs than not.

Indeed, the United States remains the largest manufacturing nation by dollar value of goods. We read that "....two chief executives of small American manufacturers described how they had been able to both increase employment and compete against foreign companies by relying heavily on automation and robots". And, this is at the heart of the on-shoring return of manufacturing to the U.S. from low cost labor centers abroad.

A similar theme was struck a few days later by a three part series in the Washington Post.