Evaluating Automation: A Lesson in Technological Advancement

Few topics in the business world evoke quite as much discourse as automation. The rapid pace of technological change has brought about a new paradigm in industry – that of automation. The ramifications of introducing breakthrough new technologies into the workplace are far-reaching, particularly where income and jobs are concerned. Automation is being fuelled by a multi-pronged approach to technological advancement, including developments in artificial intelligence, robotics, sensors, and cloud-based computing systems. Opinions are sharply divided in this realm, with proponents and opponents on opposite ends of the spectrum. Many employees are fearful of the repercussions of introducing automation in the workforce. They are worried that they may be made redundant by machines. True to form, this nascent technology has not reached its full potential, and when that time comes, it’s difficult to ascertain how workforces will be impacted. This ongoing field of study is peppered with pros and cons, much like any other.

In the US for example, unemployment levels have reached multi-decade lows, and workers across all industries have fears – some valid, some not – about how increased automation will impact their lives. Will the introduction of robotic processes, automated software, and industrial robots adversely affect the labor market? Or, will it improve efficiency and lead to new employment opportunities for market participants? The answer probably lies somewhere in between these extremes, as with any newly introduced technology, there are pros and cons.

Factory workers remain cautiously optimistic about this technology. It is worth pointing out that over the past decade, manufacturing jobs across the US have increased at a steady clip, despite industrial robots being deployed across the spectrum. in May 2019, there were 12.84 million manufacturing jobs (Bureau of Labor Statistics) up 1.5% year-on-year. Coupled with low unemployment, workers have much more leeway when it comes to choosing their preferred vocation.

 

The Dreaded T-2 Automation Syndrome

Much of the confusion about robotics and automation is a skewed perception of what it actually means. Terminator 2 did for automation what Jaws did for Great White sharks; it poisoned our collective mindset against what is potentially the greatest workplace resource of modern times. Monotonous tasks are the first to get automated with robotic processes. These include racking, stacking, and packing boxes, materials, supplies, inventories et cetera.

By freeing up human resources from these repetitive tasks, they can be put to better use and be of greater benefit to the organization. It’s not only physical tasks that automation processes can assist with; it’s online activities too. Emails, invoices, inventory management, customer service operations, and other associated activities are easily automated with high-tech software. Technicians typically benefit the most from the implementation of robotic software, since they are tasked with managing, servicing, and operating this type of equipment.

On a macroeconomic level, robotic systems allow companies to remain highly competitive in the global workforce. This is true in manufacturing industries, retail industries, and wholesale industries alike. The Robotic Industries Association (RIA) indicated that industrial robot shipments to Canadian and US companies increased by 7% in 2018. Equally impressive is the fact that there was a 40% increase in robotic shipments of consumer goods and food, while electronics spiked 22%, and life sciences jumped 31%.

The rampant growth of industrial robots across the US and Canada reached a value of $1.8 billion in 2018, particularly in materials handling, welding, assembly, dispensing, and coating. Machine-style robots are ideal for strenuous and repetitive physical labor activities such as lifting bags of cement, sand, bricks, cinderblocks, and the like. Robots are also highly effective at detecting defects, quicker to perform physical activities, and they don’t require overtime pay.

 

Disruptive Impact of Automation Technology

Automation will upend existing transportation systems and networks by way of self-driving vehicles using AI technology. Powerful learning algorithms and inexpensive sensors exist and they will be brought to market in short order. As we move towards driverless vehicles, cities and their systems will change to accommodate these brand-new technologies. Redundant frameworks and infrastructures will have to be overhauled and new opportunities will be created in the process. Robotics also creates a tremendous divide between those countries embracing technology and those slumbering in backward isolation.

It is clear that countries like China will race ahead with robotic automation and leave many African and Latin American countries languishing. The concept of a ‘Co-Bot’ has been bandied about in the literature. These coworkers will assist human workers to make their jobs easier. The rate of change for technological innovation and automation is dependent upon the industry. While driverless vehicles may be years away, automation technology in the office is already available and being deployed across the board.

 

Should We Fear Automation Technology?

There are certain aspects of technology that are worrisome, but they are typically restricted to military applications and government spying agencies. For run-of-the-mill office applications, there is no need to fear the introduction of more efficient ways of managing the workflow. Erstwhile military systems were designed to relay threats, targets, and information to teams of experts who would then interpret the data at Central Command. Now, these autonomous robots are capable of performing all of these activities the spot.

These include detecting and recognizing targets, classifying them, identifying them, and even targeting them if required. There is widespread consensus among respondents that AI will have a positive effect on economic growth, with 70% of respondents attesting to allocating budgets for AI adoption (International Quality and Productivity Centre). Smart technologies certainly have a disruptive effect on enterprise, from rudimentary tasks like speech recognition to call centre management, natural language processing, and machine learning.

 

Robotic Process Automation

When it comes to job creation, an interesting fact emerged from the World Economic Forum Future of Jobs report of January 2018. The report found that 33% of children starting school in 2018 would end up in a job which doesn’t currently exist. Much of the focus will be on algorithms, data, AI readiness, and a veritable fusion of ‘man and machine’ in the workplace. This naturally brings us to Robotic Process Automation – an area of particular interest for those following the impact of automation in 2020 and beyond. RPA is expected to reach a value of $5 billion within the next four years. The implementation of RPA software at company level delivers tremendous benefits to the bottom line. Kryon RPA software is one such solution that is making big waves in the industry and its wide range of solutions are being implemented at SMEs across the board.

Companies are increasingly adopting RPA technology to bolster their capabilities, cut down costs, and dramatically increase the performance. In 2018, the impact of RPA was substantial. It grew by 63%, with the United States and Canada making up 50% plus of the global market. Next in line is Europe at 23%, and Australia in a distant third. With RPA processing technology, automation software combines with artificial intelligence to manage high-volume, repetitive tasks. While RPA is not part of an IT infrastructure, it’s simply sitting atop them and can be trained to perform specific processes within existing software applications.

RPA is not designed to replace humans and cut down the number of jobs in play; human judgment will always be an integral component of the process. This automated system is geared towards handling menial tasks that take up too much of an employee’s time. A report issued by Deloitte in 2019 confirms that US unemployment remained at its lowest level in 50 years and yet the RPA technology is actually credited with generating as many jobs as it replaces, for a net zero impact on the market.

This points in one direction: RPA will change the nature of jobs, it will not eliminate jobs entirely. Naturally, organizations must be receptive to these changes and implement systems, networks, and frameworks that are conducive to RPA adoption alongside the traditional labor force. RPA engineers have a critical role to play in the process, and assist in creating opportunities for different types of jobs within organisations.

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