Charlie and the (fully-automated) Chocolate Factory

November 29th, 2019, Published in Articles: EngineerIT, Featured: EE Publishers, Featured: EngineerIT

Aimee Clarke

As any rational 20-something-year-old woman does when dealing with a romantic crisis, a recent breakup led to a wine- and takeaway-filled movie night with my girlfriends. After vetoing all typical boy-meets-girl movies, we opted for a classic: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the Tim Burton version, of course, because who doesn’t love Jonny Depp?

As confirmation bias would have it (I obviously read a lot about automation), the opening credits show filling machines, conveyor belts, robots, sensors, and packaging machines. I couldn’t help thinking about which brand of pick-and-place robot Willy Wonka would have used. Would he opt for Omron’s Delta or would he prefer ABB’s FlexPicker? Perhaps he would veto both and go for a collaborative robot from Universal Robots, easily programmed by his myriad of Oompa Loompas.

Once I got over my obsession about Wonka’s preferred method of automation, what struck me next was how this linked to the premise of the story. Charlie’s dire circumstances (and once-yearly chocolate bar) are a result of his father’s retrenchment from a toothpaste factory, where he had been employed to screw the lids onto toothpaste tubes but was replaced by a robot. “Wow, this seems very relevant to the current fears of unemployment in South Africa”, I thought. “But hang on, Roald Dahl wrote this book in 1964, *does quick maths* – that’s 55 years ago!”

The lesson here is that automation is nothing new. Technology’s replacement of human labour has been happening since the dawn of the steam engine. Disruption is ongoing and to stand in its way is to hold ourselves back.

However, Wonka is certainly not without need for people in his factory (are Oompa Loompa’s people?). While automation takes care of routine tasks and heavy lifting, employees are engaged in product development. There is another lesson here: automation cannot replace creativity. Gum that changes flavours and chocolate that can be teleported – these are novel ideas that set Wonka’s products apart from the others.

Companies that will survive the Fourth Industrial Revolution are companies that make use of their human resources for initiative, creativity and intuition (the kind of intuition that Wonka’s squirrels use when deciding that Veruca Salt is a bad nut). Sure, it won’t be everyone – job losses are a reality. Effort has to be made to re-skill, and South Africa cannot rely on government to make this happen. When covering industry events, I often question company’s training efforts, but it actually goes beyond that. It is up to every individual to educate themselves as best they can with the resources they have to ensure they don’t get left behind.

Some things hit home

What I had yet to share with my girlfriends that night was that the heartbreak I was recovering from had been compounded by an announcement from my managing director that week: our company is closing, with staff-wide retrenchments. We had failed to overcome the surge of challenges we faced, one of which was the competition that new digital marketing brought to our traditional advertising products. Innovation in our product and service offering was deficient in meeting new customer demands. Digital disruption tipped our boat, just like it did for Charlie’s dad.

However, all is not lost. While I am sad that the book is ending and my role as editor of EngineerIT is coming to an end, I am emboldened by the fact that I have developed expertise which I know will hold me in good stead. I may be a cliché 20-something-year-old who sits in her pyjamas and binges on chocolate after a breakup, but I know what an FPGA is. I know all about PLCs, DCSs, ERPs and OEE. I have learnt to run a team, run a conference and run around like a headless chicken. My skills are my golden ticket to the future, and while I am sure it won’t be with out its challenges, I am excited.

I would like to thank everyone who has helped me learn so much through the past 21 issues of EngineerIT. Aside from my caring and knowledgeable colleagues (including my predecessor, Annette Thompson), I owe much to the amazing network of enthusiastic engineers from across the automation and IT industries who read this publication and have continuously educated me on new trends, technology and, of course, industry drama.

Send your comments to aimee.clarke@ee.co.za

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