Dana Whalls Aer Automation Insight

Reflections on the Past and Future of the Machine Vision and Automation Industry

Dana Whalls is Vice President of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3), North America’s largest automation trade association. In the following article, she reflects on the evolution of machine vision and automation industry.

MACHINE VISION AND AUTOMATION

By Dana Whalls
Vice President of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3)

My thanks to Salvador Giro, past-CEO and advisor to the board of INFAIMON, and president of the Spanish Association of Robotics and Automation (AER Automation) for the invitation to contribute to this annual review of the global automation industry.

Through my almost 20 years in the machine vision and automation industry, I have known Salvador as a long time valued member of AIA (now A3), and a generous leader and contributor to the industry. I joined the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) in 2004 to help support and grow the Automated Imaging Association (AIA). At that time, A3 had one other association, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA).

Today, A3 is North America’s largest automation trade association, representing more than 1,200 organizations involved in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision & imaging, motion control & motors and related automation technologies.

During my tenure, A3 and the automation industry have changed in a number of ways. Technology siloes in the industry and at A3 have been broken down. We have helped solve industrywide problems, such as a lack of high quality system integrators in machine vision. And dear to my heart, the demographics of the industry have become more diverse, including more women.

This is an exciting time to be in the automation industry as ease-of-use and AI are changing how people interact with automation. A big challenge we need to tackle is keeping up with this demand by growing the automation workforce. This is a great industry to work in, and these are exciting, good-paying jobs with growth opportunities.

Breaking down siloes—in the industry and at A3

Until a few years ago, robotics, machine vision, and motion control had separate trade associations under the A3 umbrella, but now that’s changed. A3 was originally founded as RIA and ten years later added AIA. Later still, the motion control industry needed the support of a trade group, and the Motion Control Association (MCA) was added to A3.

At one point, I had four different business cards, one for A3 and each industry trade group, and A3 managed different industry-specific websites for each group. Those association siloes reflected the separateness of the robotics, machine vision and motion control technology domains in the industry. Over time, these technologies have become much more connected, and the separate technology siloes merged into what we now call automation.

“This is an exciting time to be in the automation industry as ease-of-use and AI are changing how people interact with automation. A big challenge we need to tackle is keeping up with this demand by growing the automation workforce”

Automation is much more than robotics (or machine vision), although robots do get much of the attention of the public. By contrast, businesses need automation to survive—to get work done faster, better and more cost effective—and automation may or may not involve robots. Over time I saw that business leaders came to articulate their needs as, “We need automation,” regardless of whether a solution involved machine vision, robots, motion control or other specific technologies. That’s a good thing.

As automation solutions came to integrate multiple types of technology, we at A3 recognized that our trade associations needed to break down our own siloes and no longer remain separate groups. That led to a big shift, melding all of our trade associations into one group, which is better serving the industry today. And now AI is a part of the mix, naturally.

Certified professionals have improved the vision industry

Industrywide problem solving is a big undertaking that has the potential to reap big rewards. At one point in the history of the machine vision industry, around 2010 when I was focused on supporting AIA, the reputation of vision integration and systems was struggling. Machine vision integration was full of technological promise but, with no mechanism for quality control, lacked results. As a result, buyers were frustrated with machine vision systems, some came to think that machine vision didn’t work, that it was a waste of money.

In response to this unfortunate situation, AIA stepped in to do what we could. We raised the bar to entry and created the Certified Vision Professional (CVP) and Certified System Integrator programs, which certified system integrators and educated the personnel deploying vision systems. We sought to certify only those companies that had both the technical skills and financial stability to get the job done. We brought together industry experts, offered training and proctored examinations to certify engineers, among other measures. Over time, and with the help of the AIA programs, the reputation of the machine vision industry improved significantly.

“When I started, the automation industry hired few women. This is getting better, but still has a long way to go to reap the benefits of workforce diversity

Key women in the history of the automation industry

Automation associations like A3 and AER Automation promote automation and educate businesses on how they can stay globally competitive. To deliver on our promises, our industry needs skilled workers—and plenty of them.

By convincing more students to prepare for the excellent job opportunities presented by automation, we can expand the labor pool for our growing industry. One of the groups we can tap into more is women. When I started, the automation industry hired few women. This is getting better, but still has a long way to go to reap the benefits of workforce diversity.

A3 has recognized several women as Joseph A. Engelberger Award winners—the first woman in 2007 and then more beginning in 2017. The late Mr. Engelberger is known in the industry as the “father of robotics”.

Among the female winners are the following:

  • Roberta Nelson Shea (Universal Robots), who has long led efforts in robot safety and safety standards, helping to keep workers around the world safe (Winner in 2023 for Application).
  • Melonee Wise (Agility Robotics), who founded the leading autonomous mobile robotics manufacturer, Fetch Robotics, and later sold the company to Zebra Technologies (Winner in 2022 for Technology).
  • Catherine Morris (ATI Industrial Automation), who tirelessly promoted automation and had an extraordinary ability to connect with people and get them involved in the robotics industry (Winner in 2019 for Leadership).
  • Gudrun Litzenberger (International Federation of Robotics), who compiled the IFR’s annual World Robotics Report for years and expanded the reach of the IFR globally (Winner in 2018 for Leadership).

We look forward to the contributions of women in automation and awarding more Engelberger awards to them. While women account for more than half of the college-educated U.S. labor force in 2022, based on a Pew Research Center analysis, women earned only 35% of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees from 2008 to 2021, according to Statista. This reveals a huge gender gap and an opportunity for our industry to find ways to inspire women to pursue STEM degrees and hire women into the automation industry.

“Companies that need skilled labor will hire workers with high school degrees and train them

What the future holds for machine vision and automation

  • Post-pandemic demand is growing for automation, and we see no end in sight. Businesses cannot find enough skilled workers, which increases the demand for automation.
  • Diversity efforts are part of the solution to draw more workers to the automation industry, and more mentoring is needed to reach that goal. Companies need a thoughtful strategy at the corporate level to ensure inclusion in their companies and that they offer a pathway to success for their teams.
  • More educational programs are needed (on-the-job training, two-year community college programs and four-year university programs). This will provide a route to good jobs, grow the workforce, and make sure those students have the skills they need to deliver results reliably. Companies that need skilled labor will hire workers with high school degrees and train them. Education-corporate collaboration will produce more two year automation programs to prepare workers for industry. And four year institutions will see the demand, too. The universities have taken notice of the opportunity and are responding by offering more robotics and automation classes and degrees.
  • AI, neural networks, and large learning language models are a huge area for growth as a result of the meteoric rise of AI and its capabilities. The industry already uses predictive maintenance and digital twins, introducing AI to these applications and more will propel the technology forward. AI deployment may take some time in existing facilities, as significant investment is required to retrofit with sensors to support legacy machinery. But new plants and new installations will use advanced machine learning, AI, and automation from the onset, providing a real advantage.

Automation industry associations around the world have a key role in the continued success of our industry through education, certification, industry promotion, public relations, and more. I look forward to our bright future.

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