For the past six decades information and communications technology (ICT) has created new possibilities for the manufacturing sector. Advances in automation have made goods production far more productive, streamlined, and profitable. Industrial automation redefined the division of labour by introducing repeatability, waste management, enhanced quality control, and end-to-end business integration. This in turn has resulted in labour reduction in certain fields, but has created more opportunities in other, more advanced areas.

As a result, Canada’s goods-producing industry contributes nearly half a trillion dollars to gross domestic product on an annual basis. The manufacturing sector alone contributes more than $174 billion annually.

Outside the manufacturing sector, several high profile industries are taking advantage of automation, robotics, computer control methods, hydraulics, and pneumatics to conduct R&D, introduce efficiencies, and boost productivity. Robotic automation is being leveraged in aeronautics, agriculture, transportation and warehousing, and retail trade. However, very little is known about the economics of automation and robotics in Canada, its talent needs, and growth trajectory.

The direct contribution of automation on the goods-producing economy warrants further elaboration and examination. While automation is playing an increasingly important role in various sectors of the economy, it has single-handedly transformed the goods-producing industry and impacted its productivity, employment, and competitiveness. The justification to study the role of automation in goods production was validated through secondary research, primary data collection, and industry consultations.

Automation is the creation and application of technology to monitor, control, and expedite the production and delivery of goods and services. Automation encompasses many vital processes and job functions that make up today’s economy, and is used in facility operations in all levels of production.[1] Specific tasks in industrial automation are also performed by robots, which are multipurpose manipulators that are automatically controllable and reprogrammable in three or more axes, and can be used in either a fixed location or for mobile use.[2]

The Canadian economy has witnessed a substantial uptake in industrial automation. Companies across Canada report improved productivity and cost savings associated with the adoption of these technologies, which are used for product assembly, product packaging, and hazardous work. Canada has a relatively high adoption rate of industrial robots at 118 per 10,000 manufacturing employees. This is more than double the global average, but well below industrialized leaders such as Germany, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

Canadian businesses have noted a direct relationship between the adoption of automation and increased productivity. Over 90 percent of businesses say the adoption of industrial automation has boosted productivity over the last ten years. Two-thirds of companies (68 percent) say industrial automation has reduced production costs. The overall impact of automation on employment, however, is less clear, with some companies reporting greater employment as a result of lean manufacturing and others reporting a reduction of workers. Technology-driven change is nothing new in the Canadian economy. Certainly within the manufacturing sector industrial automation has been a mainstay for several decades, and has only in the last 20 years approached critical mass. What is noteworthy, however, is the growing uptake of robotic automation in sectors such as mining, construction, and healthcare.[3]

Advances in the digital economy will continue to push the boundaries of lean manufacturing. Already today we are witnessing a wide scale proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT), a broad computing concept that describes a scenario where everyday objects are connected to the internet and able to communicate with other devices. The emergence of cloud computing, digital platforms, and mobile technologies represent only a cusp of the IoT revolution.

According to IoT experts, the biggest challenge in realizing an IoT ecosystem is “modelling of information … To enable every device to communicate and to co-operate with all other devices.”[4]

Advances in IoT will streamline automation processes by making industrial machinery, equipment, and other objects accessible remotely. This environment will enhance machine-to-machine networks and boost communication channels throughout an organization.

[1] Automation Federation. What is Automation? http://www.automationfederation.org/Content/NavigationMenu/General_Information/Alliances_and_Associations/The_Automation_Federation/About1/What_is_Automation_/What_is_Automation_.htm
[2] International Federation of Robotics. Industrial robot as defined by ISO 8373. http://www.ifr.org/industrial-robots/
[3] The Canadian Chamber of Commerce (2013). March of the Robots: Policy Brief – October 2013. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce. http://www.chamber.ca/media/blog/131031-the-march-of-the-robots/
[4] Tessel Renzenbrrink (6 December 2012). “The Internet of Things: Robots, RFID & Co-operation.” Tech the Future. http://www.techthefuture.com/technology/the-internet-of-things-robots-rfid-co-operation/