I was surprised recently by a request to respond to some questions posed by a magazine editor from India. She asked for my thoughts about what sectors in India most need automation, why they still have a lot of manual labor, and what the factors are that influence the low levels of automation in India.
This drew my mind back to 1970-something. This gadget called a PLC was making its way from the invention oven to the bakery shelves. Bakers were few, and consumers fewer. Like everything, good things take time to become vested into our daily thought processes.
I was there in the beginning. Well, pretty close to the beginning. The level of pushback was high. It's funny now, but the biggest alarm was that "this is going to replace jobs."
The counter argument was that the general mundane and unsafe jobs would be displaced, but more skilled jobs would be created. There was no open talk of being competitive, labor costs, profitability and the like. Those topics were discussed in the C-level offices, but they usually never made it to the floor.
In the '80s, the cost benefits of automation were becoming evident. The advent of the PC, SCADA software and Windows 3.0 moved the automation industry into the mainstream.
Here's basically how I answered the inquiry:
There are many parallels between my experiences and the state of automation in India today.
Reasons for using automation vary, but, in the beginning, it was to make change easier. Relay panels and wiring were time- and people-intensive, which added unneeded costs to products. Using automation, these changes could happen quickly.
In my ideal world, I thought that if you could meet the quota of the day by producing x number of widgets, you'd have more time with your family and do things that you enjoyed. Well, greed took over and making more widgets, thus making more money, became normal.
Another reason for automation was to offset some of the dangerous work done by people and move it to automated machinery. Another was to reduce the effect of higher wages on the bottom line. The effect was so good that employment in menial jobs went down, skilled jobs went up, and profits went sky high.
So where does a country like India fit? Low wages for employees isn't a problem. In fact, it's a good thing because many people are working at something. But these costs won't remain low forever. Mexico is a good learning ground for this premise.
Any service or manufacturing sector can benefit from using automation. One of the biggest benefits is product consistency. Manual assembly or production introduces variances. This is a big problem in China, where a lot of products are handled by people.
In my experience, applications for automation can exist anywhere and in any industry. If the main focus is replacing people, however, that's short-term thinking. There has to be a better reason.
Change is not easy, regardless of the country you are in. We are all humans, and it is a struggle to accept change. The people who run the businesses that can benefit from automation might be stuck in the ways of the past. It also costs money to put the proper support structure in place to maintain the systems.
Automation training for trades is of the utmost importance. This training can happen in private classes, universities and colleges, or it can be self-taught. But it must happen in order to support the change and forward vision.
What are the three most important reasons for the lack of automation in India? There are many answers, but at the top of the list would be attitude, fear and trust. Implementing any automated system takes money and skill, and both can be learned, bought or hired. But if the owner of the business doesn't see the benefit because of something in his own thinking, then it's not going to happen. You can lead a horse to water…
The situation in India is reminiscent of the startup of this industry here. We have the benefit of history and hindsight. So documented history will be the column's focus next month, compliments of Jim Pinto and Dick Morley. I might have some things to offer as well, but my experiences are, after all, much, much younger.