The economic crisis brought on by Covid-19 has uncovered hidden vulnerabilities in global supply chains. One of the most glaring: a lack of responsiveness and adaptability. The sudden inability to purchase goods from toilet paper to equipment for data centers shines an unforgiving light on just how we make things. Production lines have been exposed as unable to scale, incapable of reconfiguring to build the things we need most, and often, unfit even to operate in an environment with limited access. Manufacturers need resiliency, flexibility, and scalability. In other words, they need automation.
For all the slick videos of robots picking and packing, for all the references to artificial intelligence and the hype around Industry 4.0, automation is not widely deployed in manufacturing. By some estimates, high levels of automation play a role in only 3% of all goods produced. The vast majority of manufacturing remains dependent on human labor and access to physical space. That makes it vulnerable to repeated disruptions. While Covid-19 proved that point in the worst way, we had ample warning: Manufacturing has been routinely disrupted by tariff wars, by supply chain disturbances tied to climate change, and by regional conflicts throughout history.
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