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Automation and AI Bring Future Closer Than Ever

Pat Evans
By Pat Evans Contributing Editor, SME Media

As a self-aware millennial, I’ve long been wary of how quickly technology is taking over our lives and quickly dominating the economy. Attending HxGN Live in June, Hexagon AB’s annual digital solutions conference, some of those fears were reinforced, while others were quelled.

Seeing the technology advances and hearing the vision of Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence executives at HxGN Live 2019 in Las Vegas makes a fully autonomous future feel a few short years away. However, Hexagon President Norbert Hanke’s belief that the human brain will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain key in all operations and programming was a relief.

Life Around Manufacturing

For my entire life, I’ve lived on the periphery of manufacturing. My father was a CFO of an international tooling company and I occasionally would cover manufacturing when I worked for the Grand Rapids Business Journal. I’ve been in and out of Michigan factories much of my life and, in 2017, made my way to China to see the new state-of-the-art factory my dad’s company had opened. So hearing Hexagon North America President and CEO Angus Taylor say much of the rest of the world had jumped ahead of North American manufacturing wasn’t a surprise to me. The Chinese industrial park I saw was incredibly advanced, futuristic and polished compared to those in Michigan.

While I certainly have my trepidations about the future of an autonomous economy, to see the rest of the world jump happily into the future and potentially leave the U.S. in the past is almost as big of a fear, particularly as the U.S. continues to face a growing skills gap and parents push children toward more “prestigious” careers.

But Taylor’s optimism about the U.S. industry and where it can go is plenty reassuring.

“We’re in [the dawn of a new age] right now,” he said. “[Looking at] global competitiveness, the U.S. is competitive in a lot of ways and we have the opportunity locally to use automation to bridge some skills gaps.”

Small Manufacturers and Leaders

Taylor and Hanke were also both extremely positive in their opinions of how small manufacturing companies and individual, visionary leaders will be the ones to ultimately shape where the industry goes—perhaps not all that unlike the past. Those small companies, they agree, are quicker to be able to witness a fully digital operation and understand how to make processes more efficient.

Likewise, as a theme of HxGN Live was to use data better, Hanke’s words of wisdom to limit the amount of wasted data impressed this sports fan who wonders sometimes how much data is truly worthless. Why gather it just to have it?

Similarly, having read several skeptical reports about the value of 5G cellular communications for consumers, and as someone who’s written about the impact of 5G on the sports industry, it was nice to hear Hanke say the technology might be more industry-driven than previous-generation cellular networks.

Honestly, it was surprising to hear smart factory technologies and a fully autonomous future referred to as the stuff of science fiction. But as technological advancements continue to come at a break-neck pace, it’s no wonder we may not be able to visualize how they may actually work.

We can look at a steam engine now and take it for granted, so it was nice to hear Hanke ponder if he feels today like people felt the first time they saw products of previous industrial revolutions.

Editor’s Note: See page 20 to read Pat Evans’ condensed coverage of HxGN Live 2019, and for his full coverage go to advancedmanufacturing.org and search for “Hexagon.”

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