There aren’t many people that can describe the essence of the changes that humankind is facing as a result of the transition from the industrial age to the age of intelligent automation in a captivating but detailed manner. Watching the presentation delivered by Sean Culey, the author of the forthcoming book "Transition Point: Revolution, Evolution or Endgame?" was, therefore, a real treat for guests at the P3 Future Trends Conference in Prague.
Something of a visionary, Culey points to the invention of the steam engine as the start of an exponential curve of development and dramatic innovation that is leading to a point where machines will increasingly replace humans in the supply chain and beyond. According to Culey, although the supply chain remains "human" for the time being, people have been doing everything in their power to automate it since the 1760s.
Intelligent machines are not a thing of the far future said Culey. On the contrary, "robots are already capable of replacing a vast number of human tasks in the supply chain,” he said during the Conference. ”Machines have never been as intelligent or as able to perform certain tasks as they are today. Moving forwards, they will be able to do nearly every task we currently assume only humans can do." According to this widely recognised business transformation expert, autonomous vehicles are an example of the current level of machine intelligence. Six years ago, nobody imagined that self-driving cars would be possible, as the quantity of data that needs to be processed within a split second was an insurmountable obstacle for engineers of the time. Today, however, in some places driverless vehicles can already be seen out on the roads. And that's not all the current state of the evolution of the robotic age has to offer. So, as well as driverless passenger cars in Pittsburgh, robots drive trucks in underground mines in Australia, autonomous planes are being discussed and Rolls-Royce plans to launch fully autonomous cargo ships by 2035.
Efforts to improve the independence and intelligence of machines raise social issues. "Let's face it; only robots are ‘willing’ to work for the cost of electricity," joked Culey, explaining why he is not surprised that corporations are keen to invest in automation. Culey claims that the retail giant Amazon is projected to save no less than $2.5 billion by using robots in their warehouses. The evolution of robots is documented by figures from their manufacturers and the companies that test their capabilities. While in 2013, Rethink Robotics’ ‘Baxter’ robot took three minutes and 20 seconds to complete a product packing task, but after just one software update the same task took just one minute and 12 seconds a year later. According to Culey, it would take mankind as long as 50,000 years to achieve comparable progress. In some instances, machines have completely taken over work formerly done by humans. A case in point is Rotterdam harbour terminal which is fully automated. This is leading to an automation race across all ports, such as the Webb port in Melbourne which is currently spending $77m on automation. The same autonomous fate awaits other Australian ports such as Sydney and Brisbane, as well as in other countries such as harbours in America, China, India and elsewhere.
According to Culey, 3D printing represents a chapter in itself in terms of logistics, the supply of goods, and commerce as a whole, as the possibilities and opportunities offered by this concept have yet to be fully exploited. Apart from resulting in dramatic changes for manufacturers and distributors, 3D printing will change things for consumers too.
There is no doubt that 3D printing will cause a revolution in production. Consumers will become the manufacturers of their own goods. All customers will need is to choose the item they want, pay online for the template and print out the product in their homes. Specialists designate this phenomenon with the term "prosumer", which is a combination of the words consumer and producer.
As the quality of 3D printers improves, it will be possible to print out essentially anything you might need, ranging from replacement parts to printed circuit boards and jet engines," said Culey outlining the future to guests at the Conference. Indeed, 3D printing technology already extends to biological material in addition to plastic or titanium. "In the future, we will be able to print ourselves," joked Culey. Culey also highlighted that 3D printing itself is also being updated; 4D printing technologies now exist that have the potential to "print out" intelligent materials – for example new alloys with shape memory – where different temperatures will bring about specific changes in shape. Another impatiently awaited milestone is the use of special polymers, liquids and gases that respond to the intensity of light and change shape or characteristics accordingly.
Exciting as this brave new world is, suggestions that the rise of 3D printing may mark the death knoll for logistics as we know it are quickly scotched by P3 CEO Ian Worboys who pointed out that the printers, printer parts and all the increasingly diverse materials that will be needed in order make things will still need to be stored somewhere and delivered to the consumer. “3D printing will change what’s stored in a warehouse, but not the need for warehouses or efficient distribution networks” he said.