Earlier this week, I visited Renewable Energy Corporation's (REC) solar production plant located in the western part of Singapore.
Opened in November 2010, the facility cost S$2.5 billion and was the largest clean-tech investment in the city-state. It was also the single largest investment made by the Norwegian company.
Although staffed by 1,600, the integrated wafer, cell and module manufacturing plant is highly automated. During the tour around the production lines, I saw numerous moving mechanic arms and heard the regular humming of machines. Most of the production area was occupied by robots, with the exception of the few human bodies sparsely spread across the various sections--placed there to do random and final checks for quality.
Matt Daly, general manager of REC Solar Asia-Pacific, explained that the high level of automation greatly reduced the margin for errors, and ensured higher operational efficiency and production quality. As I stood there, mesmerized, and oddly fascinated by how the drones drudged on steadily with much precision, never missing a beat, I recalled reports about how some companies were turning to robots in their manufacturing.
Japanese electronics company, Canon, just last week said it would cut at least US$4.8 billion in cost over the next four years by increasing the use of industrial robots in its production line.
But, as I watched the REC drones go about their chores, I understood then it wasn't always about replacing human workers with robots to cut costs or prioritizing profit above employee benefits. It was about ensuring a level of precision that's possible only with machines, and achieving operational efficiencies that would have been wrong to expect from human employees.
So will robots indeed lead a new revolution and where does that leave us humans? Plenty still, actually.
Daly explained that while the high level of automation at the Singapore plant allowed REC to fulfill large orders under a deadline that wouldn't have been possible with a regular workforce, it gave very little allowance for flexibility. Any deviation from the preprogrammed production lines would require major changes and disruption. As such, there was very little room for customization should customers request it.
Robots are capable of completing given tasks at higher speeds and bigger volumes, but they are still limited by the types of tasks they can handle. Human brains may not churn as quickly or operate for as many hours as machines can, but they are very complex organic mechanisms that cannot be easily replicated. And this in where we must differentiate ourselves from our robotic competitors.
We are capable of providing customized services and have the ability to problem-solve, on-the-spot, when unexpected issues pop up--something robots are not, perhaps yet, capable of doing.
Until they are, I'll savor every moment they can't string together the words to produce a post like this.