You may have seen news last week that Daimler Trucks North America became the first company to license a self-driving 18-wheel truck. Other companies, however, also are developing similar trucks.

 

The Freightliner Inspiration is equipped with Daimler’s Highway Pilot technology, which includes radar and a stereo camera, in addition to steering and cruise control systems available in other Daimler vehicles. When the driver selects the Highway Pilot feature, the truck will adapt to the speed of nearby vehicles and maintain a regular distance from the car in front. It’s important to note that—for now, anyway—a driver is always behind the wheel, ready to take over. Although the truck won’t be able to change lanes while the automated pilot is activated, it can steer itself in case of a bend in the road.

 

The truck’s human driver will still be able to perform many normal tasks, such as exiting the highway, driving on smaller roads and taking control of the rig in case of bad weather or an emergency. However, Daimler does say that in 10 or 15 years, it may be possible for trucks to drive themselves without a human driver in the vehicle.

 

That news reminded me of last fall, when Peter Sondergaard, Gartner research director, said the firm predicts one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025. Furthermore, John Santagate, research manager, supply chain, IDC, recently wrote that IDC Manufacturing Insights predicts that by 2017, “80 percent of manufacturers will be re-evaluating the applicability of robotics and logistics automation technology within their warehousing networks.”

 

One main reason for exploring the use of robotics and other automation equipment is that the cost of human labor in the manufacturing environment continues to climb. At the same time, the cost of implementing robotics continues to become more affordable for many companies. Consequently, organizations will replace human labor when the cost of implementing robotics either becomes more cost effective, or when the productivity increase of robotics outweighs any cost increase, Santagate writes.

 

While some people may argue the increased use of robotics in the manufacturing supply chain will replace human labor, there are others who point out such a transition will actually create new jobs necessary to manage the robotics-enabled environment. For example, although robots will complete labor-intensive tasks, skilled workers will increasingly be needed to operate, maintain and program the fleet of robots.

 

This process then of eliminating old jobs but creating new ones with different skillsets may actually result in a net-zero effect. Indeed, a recent Business Insider article reports that some experts have even taken to calling this movement the “Second Machine Age,” because it is comparable to what happened when the invention of the steam engine ushered in the Machine Age.

 

Aside from operating and maintaining robots, it would seem humans are still needed for the types of jobs that require judgment, creative thinking and human interaction. For a long time, artificial intelligence has been better than humans at highly structured, bounded tasks, says Ryan Calo, professor at University of Washington School of Law with an expertise in robotics, in the Business Insider article. What it has not been good at, and likely won’t be good at any time soon, are the more unstructured tasks, he says.

 

What are your thoughts on the use of robotics in the supply chain? Is your company investigating the use of robotics—or more robotics?