Robots, Automation and Workforce Reduction

How likely is it that robots and automation will eliminate the need for members of the workforce? As companies think more about how to increase productivity, robots and automation come to mind which have the potential to impact workers. The application of this technology ranges from industrial robots that generate high ROI in automotive and electronics manufacturing to innovations such as Google’s driverless car and Amazon’s package-delivering drone.

Simple and Complex Tasks

As workhorses that quickly and accurately perform simple, repetitive tasks requiring no decision making, industrial robots complete jobs that are mundane and demotivating for humans. For example, these robots are traditionally found in large companies where they drill and weld automotive parts and transfer items from one production line to another as humans perform more complex tasks alongside them.

While these industrial robots fit a need for large manufacturing organizations, small- and medium-sized companies cannot afford to spend money on a machine that only does one or two things, because they do short product runs with fast changeovers. Companies such as Universal Robots and Rethink Robotics stepped into this market to offer robots that meet this need. As Mechanical Engineering magazine points out, these robots can be programmed within a few hours by a technician in manner that is similar to teaching a child to swing a baseball bat. This programmability enables the robots to optimize routines for a given task and be moved to different production lines as needed which frees up employee capacity for other work. Furthermore, these robots are equipped with force sensors which allow them to stop in much shorter times than traditional, heavy-duty industrial robots creating a safer for environment for people.

As you approach the more glamorous end of the robotics spectrum, there is a shift from the industrial robots described above to ones that move freely to perform more complex tasks in collaboration with humans. According to The New York Times, advances in artificial intelligence and decreased cost of sensors have improved areas such as machine vision that allows Google’s driverless car to be completely automated without the need for a steering wheel or brake pedal.

The Impact on Humans

For those individuals who are concerned about humans losing jobs to robots in the near future, David Autor (a leading M.I.T. scholar of labor markets) provides some comfort. He argues that even as robots have become better at rote tasks, they have not progressed that far in other areas where humans will continue to have an advantage. From his perspective, the tasks that have proven to be the most difficult to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment and common sense—skills that are more tacit in nature. He further argues that mankind has consistently feared that technology will replace its jobs, and mankind has consistently been wrong. When some jobs faded in the past, new opportunities inevitably were created, and the workforce adapted.

If technology produces other innovations like driverless cars and more advanced robots, there should be opportunities for humans to work in collaboration with them. While Autor’s points are valid, two critical factors are required to ensure the workforce adapts. First, learning offerings must be available from companies and educational institutions. Second, the workforce needs to make use of these offerings in a timely manner.

For more information see, Worries of Killer Robots Rise, Worker-Friendly Robots and Why the Robots Might Not Take Our Jobs.

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Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

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