Be ready: Robotics, AI will impact manufacturing in ways we can’t yet imagine

Posted on May 15, 2018 :: Editors Note
Sean P. Johnson
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

How prepared are you for industrial revolution 4.0?

I’ve had a glimpse of our region’s future and it’s both exhilarating and worrisome.

In late April, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2018 VEX Robotics World Championships in Louisville, Ky., where the top middle, high school and college robotics teams gathered for four days of competition. Northeast Wisconsin was well-represented, with several high school and middle school teams competing.

As I watched the competition unfold, I thought a lot about this month’s cover story on the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence for our region’s manufacturers. That’s where it gets both exhilarating and worrisome.

First, the exhilarating part: When it comes to robotics and automation, Northeast Wisconsin has some tremendous young talent who can design, build and apply robotic and automation technology. This year’s competition may have involved stacking and moving plastic cones — both by remote control and autonomous programming — but it’s not too hard to see how that could be applied to functions in a manufacturing setting.

As the region continues to struggle with finding talent, automation and robotics offer an opportunity to close that gap, particularly as the internet of things, big data and AI make it possible for those processes and machines to learn, monitor and adjust.

But that’s where the worry comes in. As these technologies increase their footprint on the shop floor, and take on more functions, what happens to the folks currently in the workforce? How will their jobs be affected? What new skills will they need? How do we deliver those skills?

Those questions were at the heart of this month’s cover story, and are some of the questions Kurt Hahlbeck, Oliver Buechse and others involved with Advancing AI Wisconsin are suggesting manufacturers begin asking themselves before we get too far down the road.    

Hahlbeck’s concern is that there is not much of a discussion at all, and the region will be unprepared
when the technology hits critical mass. It’s not just the workforce. Some of the questions Hahlbeck thinks should be up for discussion include the costs and the true need for automation.

He’s already made a presentation to the board of directors for the NEW Manufacturing Alliance and will be sharing additional information during the full membership meeting in June.  

Meanwhile, back in Kentucky, some of the talent who will help make that future happen represented the region well. At the high school level, five teams from Northeast Wisconsin advanced out of the preliminary rounds and into the elimination rounds. Those teams represent Fox Valley Lutheran High School, Xavier High School, St. Mary Catholic High School and Fond du Lac and Oconto counties. The teams from Oconto and SMC made it to the semifinals of their respective divisions.

I have seen the future, and it is impressive.