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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Two Cowboys: Controlling Machines and Automating Tasks at Motion Design in Auckland, New Zealand

Tractor Shed Wisdom

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How do you create an opportunity for meaningful work? By applying technology to routine and mindless tasks. It frees up people to do something else. Something better. What we choose to do with this opportunity, and if it has more meaning, remains ultimately up to us.

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That was the plan at least a century and a half ago at the dawn of industrialisation. We've advanced substantially since then. We are now in a new era where machines are not only executing routine and mindless tasks, but technology is also becoming implicated in the "meaning of work". Our robots are becoming extensions of ourselves.

According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, "We’re entering unknown territory in the quest to reduce labour costs. The AI (Artificial Intelligence) revolution is doing to white-collar jobs what industrialisation and robotics did to blue-collar jobs." They are making these jobs obsolete. The very nature of work is being challenged. It is forcing us to take another look at the relationship between people, employment, technology and society.

Is technology giving us more precious hours back in our day? Is it giving us a chance for more meaningful work? This is a contentious issue that will not be settled soon. What we do know is that technology is getting more efficient at diverting mindless and meaningless tasks away from people. We now have a real opportunity to do something else. We think that we should grab this opportunity with both hands to create more meaning and purpose in our lives and in our communities. 

This is where Motion Design comes in. They are the people that take a process that a human would have done repetitively, and then automate it. They are not admitting that AI is part of it, yet. But it is bound to come sooner than later that their robots also become "self-aware". They are doing their work to reduce cost, free up human capital and improving quality and task consistency for their clients. Their customers are all over the world.


From a "tractor shed" in rural New Zealand, Motion Design managed to carve out a niche in robotics and automation. They fabricate, program, experiment, invent, innovate and build machines and systems that are used in laboratories and other industries.

Why is a small company in New Zealand succeeding in what some consider a complex, specialised, yet growing industry? Because they are fast and flexible with ingenuity on-tap. Kiwis are open-minded people. They have to be. Because of the country's geographic isolation, its people tend to be more enterprising and self-reliant. They are more inclined to trying new things and learning from their mistakes. This is innovation at its best, and fertile ground for inventing.

Kiwi businesses are recognised on the world stage for their ability to come up with novel solutions to problems and delivering on it.

Frank Calis, one of the founders of the business admits that he doesn't get to play that much anymore with the toys of the business. He is now more busy building a company where others get to play and make something. I think he is modest, as most Kiwis are. Employing a team of brilliant people to change an industry, and contribute to a better world is still building something. It takes guts to make it run.

Thanks to Motion Design, someone, somewhere in the world has been relieved of a routine and repetitive task. Hopefully, they are making the most of the opportunity by doing something else now, with more meaning.

Hendrik van Wyk
Automatic Cowboy

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