How Much Progress in 24 Years?

1984 Macintosh factory
Originally uploaded by joshuacoventry.

In 1984 Apple built a state-of-the-art automated factory in Fremont, California to assemble the first 128k Macintosh computers. Capable of producing a new Macintosh every 27 seconds, the factory attracted lots of industry and public attention along with extensive press coverage.

Unfortunately the factory's design proved to be inflexible and difficult, if not impossible, to modify rapidly to accomodate new computer models and design changes. The factory went through considerable modifications, redesigns, and was eventually closed and the building sold off in 1991.

Today, 24 years later, robotics and factory automation have made great strides. The evolution has been tremendous. Yet a large percentage of factory manufacturing and assembly tasks still require high degrees of design and process flexibility.

As a result, manufacturers still employ large numbers of human factory workers. Is it because the human factory worker has some special skill, ability, or technology that can not be readily automated? Or, is it because robotic technology just hasn't evolved quite far enough yet to deal with the need for extreme flexibility and change?

In either case, it seems clear that robots will inevitably become sophisticated enough. How long will it take? What will be the impact on product costs, corporate P&Ls, the economy, and, most important - people's quality of life?


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