Members of the Manufacturing Leadership Council last week gathered in Huntsville, Alabama to tour Raytheon’s sleek, 70,000-square-foot missile factory and to discuss a question that touches everything from workforce levels to time-to-market and even to how companies make decisions: Are there limits to the automation of manufacturing?

The plant tour event, co-hosted by the Manufacturing Leadership Council and Anthony King, Chief Information Security Officer, Raytheon Missile Systems, and a member of the Council, enabled participants to see how Raytheon builds the Standard Missile-3, a defensive weapon used to destroy short- to-intermediate-range ballistic missiles, and the Standard Missile-6, a weapon used by naval vessels against fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cruise missiles.

Located on the U.S. Army’s huge Redstone Arsenal, the nearly three-year-old Raytheon plant is highly automated, with laser-guided transport vehicles moving missiles around the plant. The automated, guided vehicles carry up to five tons and can position missiles to within 1/10,000 of an inch on the assembly line. Engineering, parts storage, and testing are also performed at the plant.

At the roundtable discussion following the tour, Council members from large and small companies alike were emphatic that the automation of operations is not an all-or-nothing-at-all issue, that automation should be used where it makes sense and when a solid business case for its use can be devised.

“I think it depends where you are,” said one Council member from a large automotive manufacturer. “In India, for example, we have lots of manual operations. In Western Europe, the U.S., and Canada, we have maybe 95% automation in our body shops.

“You can continue to automate for the sake of automation, but there is clearly a point of diminishing return for the whole enterprise when it doesn’t drive more revenue.”

Nevertheless, a number of Council members graded their companies as relatively low in terms of how automated their manufacturing operations are today. Functional areas such as design, testing, packaging, and material handling can often be well automated, several Council members said, but others noted that there is still much potential for automation on the factory floor itself.

“I think anywhere where we can use automation to streamline the non-value-added component of lead time is where opportunities for growth can occur,” said a Council member from a pharmaceutical company. Added an executive from a large, diversified company, “We think there is an incredible amount of cost than can be taken out of every process.”

New technologies such as 3D printing as well as application trends such as the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) are provoking a range of reactions among Council member companies, with some well underway with 3D printing, for example, and others still trying to determine its applicability to their businesses. But some expressed the view that 3D automation could prove disruptive to some companies.

“We are investing and making lots of parts for prototype use,” said the Council member from the automotive company. “But what if someone in my industry figured out how to 3D print an automotive body panel, and it obsoleted the metal stamping business?”

Similarly, the possibilities of the IoT have garnered the attention of Council members, but many are just starting to think about how the increased connectivity and resulting information-generation can benefit their businesses.

Said one Council member from a chemical company, ”I would say there is some interest in this connectivity because we have things everywhere in our manufacturing plants. We have people out in the units, taking measurements. We are looking at it in a practical way and asking, ‘How can we get away from checklists and use technology in a smarter way?’ It would be nice if we could have people remotely monitoring the entire chemical plant.”

But what should manufacturers do with all of the data that would be generated from increased connectivity on the plant floor and even enterprise-wide? How much trust should companies place in the information, and how would this form of information automation affect how decisions are made?

The consensus among Council members was that increased automation and the information generated from it will have a substantial impact on how organizations make decisions, speeding up the process, making it better, and more consistent.

Even so, Council members said, an organization needs to verify the information it is getting.

“I would say it depends upon where you are on the faith curve,” one Council member said. “Just because you can simulate things, for example, doesn’t make the simulation hold true.”

It’s hard to imagine a future in which automation in manufacturing doesn’t increase. Advances in sensors, controls, communications connectivity, mobility, and robotics–to name just some of the most prominent technology areas–will continue and will open up new possibilities for manufacturers to create highly automated, smart factories.

But automation has always been a double-edge sword, improving efficiency, productivity, and safety on the one hand, but also eliminating jobs, on the other hand. Ironically, though, the shortage of qualified people in U.S. manufacturing today – predicted in a new Manufacturing Institute/Deloitte study to rise to 2 million openings by 2025 – may make automation even more attractive.

But Council members felt that, even with increasingly intelligent robots, manufacturers still will have to exercise judgement about where they will be used. After all, one Council member said, robots only do what they are programmed to do. They can’t understand the process and look for improvement opportunities – at least not yet.

“I think it goes back to the faith question,” said another Council member. “If you apply it judiciously and intelligently, then you will get good benefits. But if you just apply it blindly, then you are going to get into trouble. I think that is the limitation. We have to understand that automation is not going to give us solutions to everything.”