Analyzing the Emerging Impact of Automation on Industrial Design

The impact of automation on design

November 10, 2019

Automation has already made waves in nearly every sector and will continue to impact the nature of work and the nature of the consumer going forward. More and more articles now explore the disastrous scenarios automation could produce, and debates have surfaced on how we can safeguard against potential employment crises—from initiating a robot tax to implementing a universal basic income. Those measures may in fact become necessary, but hopefully the future won’t be quite so bleak. That said, we all just want to know which of our jobs will be safe and which will die out, but the truth is as the essence of work itself continues to change, we should all prepare to increase our adaptability by increasing our skills.

Incentives for Training Programs

Whipsaw Director of Engineering Marco Berkhout began his career in the manufacturing space at companies including Johnson & Johnson and United Biscuits, and he saw automation’s potential to create a positive change in factory settings firsthand. Many tasks previously performed by workers on the factory floor were rendered obsolete once production processes were automated, so those men and women were offered the opportunity to be retrained as operators on a different scale. This marked a drastic improvement in their overall quality of life because they went from doing intense manual labor to sitting at a desk and controlling the manufacturing process from behind a computer.

“What automation doesn’t do yet is automatically create a concept. That’s still our territory.”

The notion that employees should start receiving additional training is also touched upon in the latest McKinsey report which reviews how automation will create major workforce changes by 2030, including possible displacement, the need to switch occupations, and the subsequent need for training to help workers make that switch. MIT’s 2019 Work of the Future Report examines how all forms of employment will change from machine learning as well, stating, “The resulting changes in work design will alter the nature of many jobs, in some cases profoundly. But the implications for specific skill groups are as yet uncertain and will in part depend on managerial and organizational choices, not on technologies alone.” When deciding what type of additional training to seek out, it’s a good idea to focus on the types of new roles automation will open up. Eventually, for example, the role of the bus driver could shift into that of a tour guide who informs the route, and the waiter might become a food connoisseur who guides you through the menu. The through line of both these examples is the social component that Berkhout believes will always keep humans employed because we will always crave human interaction and connection.

The Impact on Industrial Design

Within this specific profession, many designers rely on their social skills in order to perform their jobs. That is, the more minds that come to the table, the easier it is to collaboratively come up with something fresh and exciting. The ability to merge artistic visions is a must for innovating in design because the idea that surfaces in a think tank is often superior to the one produced by the solo artist. Says Whipsaw Industrial Designer Yale Shaw, “You can’t design in an echo chamber. You’ll either end up making a product for yourself, or designing something without truly understanding the user. It’s the ability to connect with others and understand their perspectives that allows ideas to reach their full potential.” Ari Turgel, Whipsaw director of industrial design also observes, “The most innovative and powerful ideas come from the ‘big brain,’ if you will. Whenever there’s a collective, where people are taking ownership of different parts or switching ownership, that’s when things get really interesting.”

“The knack for coming up with truly inspired visions is still a uniquely human quality.”

Taking a product to market also calls upon a talent for connecting with clients. In some cases, a client has a strong perspective and simply wants you to execute their visions, but the most innovative products tend to emerge from a give-and-take between the client and design team in which there’s room for the idea to evolve freely. The exchange of ideas between designers, consultants and clients is a process unlikely to get phased out. More likely, software will be developed that can quickly contribute data-driven recommendations into the think tank which will become part of the discussion. Says Whipsaw Industrial Designer Cheng-Fu Hsieh, “What automation doesn’t do yet is automatically create a concept. That’s still our territory.” Dan Harden, Whipsaw CEO and principal designer adds, “As a designer and artist who gets inspiration from soft fuzzy things like analog experiences, random association, and unexpected relationships between elements, the thought of computer generated auto-creation makes me cringe.” Fortunately, the knack for coming up with truly inspired visions (which often arrive in bursts and breakthroughs) is still a uniquely human quality.

Unlike innovators in other sectors, industrial designers must also continuously contemplate the experience of the person eventually using their products. While the creative writer is penning their book, on the other hand, they don’t also need to envision their future readers’ experience of turning its pages. User experience (UX) designers are called upon to do just that though—create a baby while picturing exactly how its caretakers will interact with it over the long term. In that sense, the way the customer experiences a cleverly designed product is what makes it art. And at the core of art is empathy. Whipsaw UX Designer Paul Gifford notes, “While automation can increase a designer’s efficiency and take away some of their detailed tasks, I don’t believe it could ever fully replace design due to the human questioning strategy that goes into each product.” Ultimately, perhaps the role of the UX designer will be rebranded as ‘empathy consultant,’ seeing as great design will always call upon great empathy.

Regarding the broader design field, Gifford observes, “We currently see the application of machine learning and image recognition augmenting graphic and web design. Instead of a designer deciding on layout, colors, and photos, the software platform automatically analyzes all the input and recommends design elements to the user. This can be an incredibly creative part of the design process which is now being replicated. I think this will only shift a designer’s role and give them more energy into defining their own unique aesthetic.” Thus, carving out a personal design style now is one way to prepare to stand out more prominently tomorrow.

“Automation will host a complete new set of opportunities that we don’t even know of at this point. We need to be aware of that and get more collaborative as a society as we move forward.”

Whipsaw Industrial Designer Mark Hearn adds, “Automation occurs when technology uses tools like a human. For example, in car manufacturing you have robotic arms doing things in factories in an automated way. And here at Whipsaw, we use 3D printing to build models versus foam core ones. Other programs we rely on, like Keyshot and Photoshop, automate singular tasks, but there’s still nothing automating the system.” When entire systems become automated, that’s when automation alters the very fundamentals of work, and workers must then shift into positions which oversee, consult upon, or enhance the system rather than simply performing tasks within it.

All this being said, the main benefit automation currently brings to industrial designers is it allows them to put more into the market faster. Says Hsieh, “Automation lets us perform certain aspects of our jobs incredibly fast. We can now use software instead of markers to create photo-realistic renderings, for example. Twenty years ago, everything had to be drawn on paper by hand—every last curve.” In response, however, consumers have begun to expect products pairing cutting edge technology with minimalistic designs to be released one after the other without pause. The window of attention given to such products has been therefore closing over the years, and now it’s not much more than a crack. On that note it does seem probable that our consumer ADD is here to stay.

What’s to Come

As for the next few decades, Berkhout notes, “Automation will host a complete new set of opportunities that we don’t even know of at this point. We need to be aware of that and get more collaborative as a society as we move forward.” Despite the possible unforeseen opportunities, we have a history of focusing on the frightening aspects of the unknown, and a tendency to represent it darkly. Over the last 35 years (with exceptions) film representations of AI, for example, have evolved from stone-cold murderous robots to loveable operating systems. Perhaps that’s because when we didn’t have access to that much technology, we were more fearful of what that foreign territory could become. Later, as we built individual online worlds to express ourselves and form friendships, romances and businesses, we began to cinematically depict more near-future scenarios in which humans could find meaningful connections with AI. Thus, just as we’ve adjusted to technology in our daily lives, it’s possible we could also adapt to the changes automation makes to the workforce more easily than we think…as long as we start planning for that adaptation now.

“The designer is making products that automate tasks, and those products are also manufactured using automated processes. The future holds a big opportunity for the design world to step into the manufacturing world and see what can be accomplished.”

We will always need innovators in every profession. And while the nature of human innovation hasn’t changed much since we began developing products to enhance our everyday worlds, thanks to automation, our expectations of innovators have. In the next few decades the process of taking a product to market will move even faster as more design components continue to get automated. This will likely create a situation in which skills such as the ability to communicate effectively and to think experientially and against the grain become more coveted. To play it safe, today’s designers should seek out supplemental training which sharpens those skills and also prepares them to oversee processes at a higher level. With that in mind, Berkhout’s outlook for the future remains positive. “I think there’s a marriage between the automated process, manufacturing, and automated products,” he notes. “The designer is making products that automate tasks, and those products are also manufactured using automated processes. I think the future holds a big opportunity for the design world to step into the manufacturing world and see what can be accomplished.”

Automation is going to continue to change things across the board. In a worst-case scenario, we all lose our jobs and widespread chaos ensues. In a best-case one, our future technology allows us to focus on more stimulating tasks, skills, and specializations increase, and we think on a more collective level about how we can all thrive. If we look at the trends, we’re clearly capable of coming together to shift stably into the next work paradigm, so between the two scenarios, we may as well aim high.

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