The attraction is clear. Simply close the door and leave your army of programmed robots to get on with the job in your dark factory. No lighting or heating bills, no labour disputes, 24/7 uninterrupted production. But what is the reality?

Model of the future

Writing recently, Matthew Carr, Emerging Trends Strategist at The Oxford Club, illustrated how dark factories are edging closer.

“Changying Precision Technology Company in Dongguan, China, might be the model for the future of manufacturing. Its mobile phone factory used to employ 650 workers. Now it needs just 60. The company eliminated 90% of its human workforce and replaced it with 60 robot arms. The results are mind-blowing. Productivity increased 250%, while product defects decreased 80%.

“The robots run 10 production lines, going 24/7. The only human workers left are there simply to ensure everything runs smoothly. Changying Precision Technology believes the number of humans can be reduced to as few as 20.”

Amazon’s robot army

Carr cited another eye-opening example of the push towards robot-run dark factories.

“Last year, Amazon’s robot workforce increased by 50% to 45,000 across 20 order-fulfilment centres. That robot army is now larger than the Netherlands’ actual army.”

Amazon still currently employs 200,000 full-time and seasonal human workers.

People wanted

Yan Vermeulen, Partner at Odgers Berndtson Singapore and Head of the Southeast Asia Industrial Practice, is more sceptical. “In principle, I don’t think dark factories are a drastic change. Factories have been getting more automated for many years. The only difference is turning the lights off, but this is more an economic decision than anything else.

“However, the shift to dark factories will take out manufacturing employment in commodity segments that don’t need either high manpower involvement or high technology involvement. So, there will always be industries that either require a lot of people to assemble or manufacture, or need high-end engineers on site for production.”

Automating change

In the US, Jim Johnson, Vice-President and Director, North America Thermal Operations at VALEO, says: “As an industry, we are thinking about [dark factories], and for our business, the place it makes most sense is in our chip manufacturing, where there is no need for human interaction.”

Anthony Coleman, GM, Print and Packaging at First Quality, has a similar view: “We are always seeking greater automation. Dark factories are something we are interested in learning more about and potentially striving for.”

Elevated roles

Mary Campagnano, Partner at Odgers Berndtson, Dallas, Texas, says: “Assessing plants for areas of increased automation, and then implementing it, is now a compelling candidate qualification.

“In the United States, there is less talk of US-based factories being ‘lights out’ due to the perception of fabrication or assembly requiring human reasoning.

“However, changes in workflow or discrete cellular manufacturing setups, such as those used in an assembly line, could be modified to allow robots to operate in 100% dark factories.

The opportunity, of course, is that every ‘bot’ requires significant programming, troubleshooting and ongoing maintenance, directed by human talent. I see it less as eliminating human jobs, but rather changing and elevating them.”

Yan Vermeulen adds: “More automation means companies will free up cash for R&D and innovation to stay ahead of the competition. The focus will, therefore, be on hiring more skilled engineers and scientists.”

New working relationships

Michael Drew, Head of the Technology Practice, Odgers Berndtson London: “The combination of automation and artificial intelligence has led to co-operation between machine and human in the modern workplace being more symbiotic than ever before.

“It’s still very early in this evolution, but the movement towards coexistence with intelligent machines is gaining momentum. We are already seeing it in areas of low-skilled manual labour.

“Technological advancement is also gradually seeping into higher-skilled roles like contact centres. Software robots powered by artificial intelligence answer customer queries or problems, without any form of human involvement.

“When one job function disappears, another takes its place. As long as companies are both prepared and encouraged to re-skill their workforce, and higher education can fill the pipeline of talent with the new skills needed, the job market will continue to sustain the population.”

This article is part of OBSERVE 13, the Science and Technology issue.

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Mary Campagnano

Based in the US Energy Capital of Texas (with offices in both Houston and Dallas) Mary Campagnano has over 20 years of business and retained search experience in high-growth and turnaround companie...

Yan Vermeulen

Yan Vermeulen is a Partner in the Odgers Berndtson Singapore office. As Head of the Southeast Asia Industrial practice, he specializes in senior executive assignments for Manufacturing, Chemical, E...

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