Today, we can communicate, buy goods, sell goods, and consume information anywhere, at any time. The list of technological devices that makes our lives easier is too long to list here.
Automation was one of the driving forces behind this digital revolution. But in recent years it has taken on a life of its own and become the focus and goal of many new innovations. Many companies have already developed automation strategies and those that understand how automation can benefit consumers will find success in the ever-evolving business landscape of the 21st century.
“[A]utomation has grown to be an integral part of the global economy and will continue to play an important part of all our lives in the coming years.”
The idea of automation has been around since the dawn of human civilization in one form or another. In its most general definition automation refers to any technology that reduces human involvement in certain processes. The term itself gained widespread use in the English language after 1947 when Henry Ford created the “automation department” at Ford Motors. In the decades since, automation has grown to be an integral part of the global economy. It will continue to play an important part of all our lives in the coming years.
Automation promises to offer benefits to companies, investors, and especially consumers, with saved labor costs, more productivity, and better quality products, ultimately making customers happy. Some companies have gotten ahead of this wave and are producing automated electronic devices, cars, and even entire stores. Their efforts will provide new experiences for the customer and can possibly elevate and move notable brands into the future. So, let’s look at how automation brought us to where we are today as well as what companies and consumers can expect from the future of automation.
Automation: A timeless process
Humans attempted to make certain activities less labor intensive as soon as they started making tools. Greek and Roman architects and inventors, such as Vitruvius, experimented with water and steam power. But it wasn’t until the Renaissance that automation began to truly take form. (Johannes Gutenberg changed everything with his invention of a movable type printing press in 1439 that enabled the mass production of printed books.)
It would take a few more centuries and some more innovations during the Industrial Revolution before what we think of today as automation was born. The introduction of “feedback controllers” to the manufacturing process in the 1930s is often seen as the beginning of modern automation. A feedback control system is defined as a system that maintains a set relationship of one system variable with another by comparing the functions of those variables and using the difference as a means of control. This may sound complicated, but it’s easier to visualize when one considers that feedback control is the automation that modernized most manufacturing and aircraft communications in the mid-twentieth century.
During the 1970s, automation merged with the burgeoning computer industry to create what some term the “Third Industrial Revolution”, and automation was further utilized after the 1990s to help build artificial intelligence (AI) systems and robotics.
Integrating AI with Robotics
Current automation is highly integrated with AI and robotics, including everything from automated, self-checkout counters at retail stores to self-driving vehicles. Most automation that consumers use are in customer service, including chatbots, automatic checkouts, automated phone operators, etc. Most of us are more than familiar with these forms of consumer automation, as many have been around for decades. But the new wave of automation that’s currently unfolding promises to bring some pretty big changes to the business and technology landscapes.
Examples from the lives of consumers
One sector that the automation industry has in its crosshairs is fast food, which is expected to jump into automation in the next few years. “Flippy” the burger robot may be a sign of things to come. Flippy is the name given to a $100,000 robot that cooks hamburgers at the Caliburger fast food restaurant in Pasadena, California. Although the cost of a Flippy robot is currently prohibitive for many store owners, as prices decrease expect to see more Flippies making your burger and fries.
Retail is currently leading the automation wave, and if you live in a major city and order products from Amazon chances are you’ve already experienced it. Amazon currently uses delivery drones to bring customers packages in several metropolitan areas. Amazon’s streaming service, Amazon Prime, uses AI to suggest shows and TV shows for consumers (as do Netflix and Hulu). Amazon is currently attempting to jump in the market of fully automated stores. Amazon Go is the brand of the company’s fully automated stores and although they’ve yet to make much of an impact in the US, the concept has caught on in other countries.
China has been at the vanguard of retail automation with its chain of fully automated convenience stores, BingoBox. BingoBox has been quite successful in China, so its owners are planning on expanding to other Asian countries and then possibly beyond. It doesn’t take long to think of a number of other examples of automation in our daily lives. But what does the future of automation hold for businesses and consumers?
The future of automated technology
There’s little doubt that the Age of Automation is upon us, but the numbers show that in the near future industries will be disproportionately affected by the transition. For example, one study shows that only about 5% of current occupations could be fully automated by contemporary technology, but that about 30% of activities in 60% of all occupations can be automated. Put simply, most people don’t have to worry about getting replaced by a robot. At the same time, there’s no doubt that automation is poised to cause massive disruption across several industries. How positive that disruption is a matter of perspective.
The potential for positive disruption for companies and brands that join the Automation Revolution is immense. The first benefit is that companies will save on labor costs. Although Flippy and other similar robots may cost a fortune, they will likely save companies in the long run and their prices will decrease as they are adopted by more companies. You don’t need to provide health insurance for robots, and robots never take vacations!
Experts also believe that automation and AI will be far more productive in fields where repetition is common. Automated robots and AI will be able to catch errors that humans miss and work without rest. Some believe that automation’s ability to catch errors will allow brands to present a consistent, personalized message that will ultimately better connect consumers to brands. Experts have also argued that automation has the ability to reverse the general decline in productivity across many sectors. It’s predicted that the productivity growth of automation and AI will reach 2% annually in the next decade with 60% of the growth in the digital sector.
Certain companies and brands will definitely benefit from the automation disruption if they know what they’re doing, but how will the average consumer fare?
How will consumers and companies benefit?
The average consumer stands to benefit in a number of ways from automation and some studies show that they are quite receptive to the change. A 2019 study by Capgemini showed that 69% of the respondents in one survey said they prefer retailers that use automation because it reduces food waste. This finding follows the eco-friendly trend that is popular today among many consumers and will likely continue to influence automation.
The more tangible, direct benefits that consumers gain from automation are plentiful. So far, automation has proven the ability to deliver products quicker with lower prices and higher quality. Automation has also led to better customer service. As many companies have automated their customer service, it has created more efficient and accurate service. Other companies that have automated production have been able to place more qualified, higher-paid humans into customer service positions.
The day of the robots is upon us, whether we like it or not. But it isn’t the end of the world. Companies, brands, and consumers all stand to gain numerous benefits from the ongoing automation wave. Companies will pay more initially to automate. Eventually, the process will help drive down costs and prices. Automation will also help brands connect better with their consumers through attention to detail and quality, thereby building stronger brand identity in the process.
Most importantly, the consumer stands to gain the most from automation, through quicker delivery, better quality, and lower prices.