Industrial automation – the rise of the robots
The New York Times recently published a long and informative article called The robots are coming and Sweden is fine. Among other things, it highlights a visit to the New Boliden mine in Garpenberg, Sweden, where workers in a control room use computer screens and joysticks to remotely steer mining equipment. Instead of inhaling dust and exhaust fumes while operating a loader manually down in the mine shaft, the workers now load the freshly blasted rock from the comfort of an office chair. The article also notes that Boliden’s next step in its journey toward greater automation is its collaboration with AB Volvo to test a self-driving truck system at its Kristineberg mine.
The role of wireless internet
Wireless internet has played a crucial role in Boliden’s path to the high level of automation that the company has achieved so far. Ten years ago, Boliden made the decision to partner with Ericsson to put in a wireless internet solution that allowed miners to talk to one another to fix problems as they emerge. For several years now the wireless internet has made it possible for miners to use tablet computers to monitor production along the 60 miles of roads that run through the mine. The connectivity features of the mine include smart control of vehicles and ventilation, which both require the analysis of a huge amount of data in near real time. One of the main advantages of remote control is that it improves safety by keeping people out of the most dangerous areas of the mine. It also improves productivity by making it possible to shorten cycle times. Massive deployment of connected rock bolts could also provide early prediction of unexpected movements.
Swedish workers’ views on automation
What I found most interesting about the article was the insight into how Boliden’s workers view the transition from manual labor toward a greater degree of automation. A union official at Boliden is quoted as saying: “For us, automation is something good. No one feels like they are taking jobs away. It’s about doing more with the people we’ve got.”
The writer points out that while many people around the world are worried that automation may cause mass unemployment threatened by automation, the workers at Boliden are confident that robots make the company more efficient and ultimately lead to better jobs for humans. This appears to be a common view in Sweden, where studies show that workers have consistently gained a proportionate slice of economic gains in recent decades during periods when their employers have prospered.
While they acknowledge that the job market will undergo a dramatic transformation in the years ahead, many Swedes and other automation advocates argue that robots will ultimately create more jobs than they eliminate. The challenge, in their view, is that large numbers of people will require retraining. Ylva Johansson, the Swedish minister for employment and integration, is quoted in the article as saying, “The jobs disappear, and then we train people for new jobs. We won’t protect jobs. But we will protect workers.”
Ericsson is investigating how 5G, the next generation of mobile technology, can play a role in addressing productivity, safety and other issues in industrial environments such as mines, through assisting in the localization of things, machines, vehicles and people. We’re convinced that investments in both 5G and vocational training will be necessary for firms to remain competitive and reap the productivity benefits of industrial automation technologies.
We are currently working with a large number of industries in research and development projects – check out our cross-industry collaborations page for details. You can also find out how three of our factories in Sweden, Estonia and China are fast-tracking the introduction of a new generation of smart manufacturing on our smart factory page. More details about our collaboration with Boliden are available here.