Manufacturing is perhaps the earliest adopter of automation, beginning with industrial robotics in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, new technologies like additive manufacturing and collaborative robotics are redesigning the production process as well as where production occurs. The MIT Work of the Future initiative approaches this topic through several lenses to understand both upstream questions about how new technology is designed and developed, to downstream questions regarding the adoption of new technologies and how they are changing the nature of manufacturing work and the skills required to succeed in manufacturing-related industries.
Advanced Manufacturing Technologies
One aspect of our research investigates the implications of advanced manufacturing, specifically additive manufacturing, for product development and supply chain architecture. Through explorative case studies with key industry leaders in additive manufacturing, we aim to elucidate how additive manufacturing motivates changes in engineering design and fabrication processes, and what skillsets and tools will allow workforces to harness those changes.
Another project examines the metrics, frameworks, and design methods for collaborative technologies. While collaborative robots and augmented intelligence (AI) systems have the potential to enhance human productivity, industry lacks frameworks and standard processes for evaluating the potential benefit of these new systems. Nearly every company does a labor displacement calculation before investing in robotics or AI. This standard analysis is easy to perform and the outcomes are readily understood. However, in many situations, labor is not cleanly displaced, and the roles of workers change. There are no standard metrics or models to quantify the value of humans and autonomous systems working together, and no standard design processes to help a company harness the relative strengths of people and machines working together. While some companies undertake focused research efforts to develop simulations used to quantify the value of human-robot teams for specific applications, others lack resources or expertise to conduct these studies for each new potential investment. This research project, to be conducted in collaboration with industry partners, will develop new metrics, frameworks, and design methods for quantifying and realizing the benefits afforded by intelligent collaborative technologies.
Firm Adoption of New Technologies and the Implications for Work
Finally, the context and pace of adoption of these new technologies varies based on numerous factors, including cost, size of firm, and regional practices. Research at the firm and industry level will examine how new technologies are being adopted by manufacturers, both small- and medium-size firms, as well as larger, original equipment manufacturers. What are the implications for jobs, tasks, and skills development? How do the regional “ecosystems” support these transitions, if at all, through institutional collaborations or investments?
This work will speak to the kinds of education, skills, and new ways of thinking that are required in advanced manufacturing across a range of roles, including technicians and engineers.