The Future of Office Automation in Manufacturing

By RP Siegel
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There is no question that technology has revolutionized manufacturing. Everything from vision systems, to factory management software, to robotics, to laser cutting has evolved to make production faster, more accurate, and require less human intervention. But change is not just happening on the factory floor. Technology has also transformed the front office and continues to develop in ways that save time, money, and manpower.

Computers, printers, and communication equipment are the most obvious examples. Information technology (IT) has, of course, been at the center of this revolution. The computer on your desk now provides information that once required legions of people to compile. There is no longer a need to walk down the hall to ask a question of another department when an e-mail or text will do the job. And that’s just the start.

Computers, printers, and communication equipment are the most obvious examples. Information technology (IT) has, of course, been at the center of this revolution.

Businesses can just as easily connect with partners, customers, or suppliers across the globe with Internet-based tools, such as Skype and Google Hangout for video calls that permit an interactive experience second only to being there in person. For larger meetings, companies are turning to video conferencing systems. Services like GoToMeeting, Polycom Telepresence, and Cisco WebEx can be used on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

All this has cut down on travel, which allows companies to more easily juggle the demands of the central office and maintaining these business relationships.

When business travel is necessary, cloud storage systems keeps data within reach of the nearest WiFi connection. JustCloud, ZipCloud, Sugarsync, SOS, and Dropbox are just a few of the cloud-based storage systems available now.

People have been talking about the paperless office for at least 30 years. Global consumption of paper is actually on the rise, an increase that's largely attributed to China. But consumption is declining in North America and Europe, where paper-dependence is being eradicated by the soaring popularity of smartphones, laptops, and tablets.

The biggest beneficiaries of office automation are small businesses owners, who often must wear many hats over the course of a workday. A variety of software products are helping them efficiently complete such routine tasks as invoicing, letter writing, bookkeeping, tax preparation, and managing customer relationships. This leaves more time for creative endeavors and business development.

Speaking of wearing hats, small business owners might start wearing their computers as well. Samsung recently unveiled a smartwatch, which will sync with a Galaxy smartphone or tablet. The watch will act like a local server, allowing users to check messages from their phones and control their music without touching a phone or tablet. Upon its release, the new gadget will feature 70 applications. 

Qualcomm introduced its Toq watch on the same day. One of the selling points of the Toq watch is its energy-efficient Mirasol display. Then, of course, there is Google Glass, a wearable computer in an eyeglass configuration, which many manufacturers are already embracing.

Of course, this technological progress is going to cast some office tools as dinosaurs bound for extinction. A survey conducted by LinkedIn asked 7,000 global professionals what office features they expect to see vanish in the next few years. Top-ranked was the tape recorder, followed by the fax machine. Survey participants also predict the demise of the Rolodex, desk phone, and desktop computer. Standard working hours, cubicles, and USB thumb drives are also seen as nearly obsolete.

With the advent of low-cost 3D printing and rapid prototyping there will be a convergence between small business, even home business, and manufacturing. That could also mean the line between business technology and manufacturing technology will blur. We tend to think of printing a document as a product of office technology. But once we start printing coffee cups or clothing, or simple machines, what domain will that fall into?

“Making shoes or clothing or even toasters in centralized factories is no longer necessary and may even lose its financial advantage, particularly once environmental costs are incorporated,” said Boston College sociology professor Juliet Schor. Small-scale production in households or communities is a produce-on-demand method, which minimizes waste by avoiding overproduction (a chronic problem in mass production), she said. It also limits or eliminates transport costs, which will be rising, and incorporates desirable consumer advantages such as the ability to customize.

In other words, it’s poised to assume a big role in the production of goods, especially in developing countries. Consider how cell phones leapfrogged over the need for landline infrastructure. The same thing could happen in manufacturing. Of course, not all goods will be suitable for that method of production, but we have hardly begun to understand the limits.

Still, office automation in the not-too-distant future could become a type of manufacturing. 

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