Automation – threat or opportunity in the workplace?

Published:  12 December, 2019

There has been debate recently about whether the increasing level of automation in manufacturing and warehousing environments is posing a threat to people’s jobs. Ostensibly, this might seem to be a rational concern. So, what’s the truth? Although expensive to set up, Sophie Hand, UK country manager at automation parts supplier EU Automation, maintains that highly automated ‘lights-out’ manufacturing comes with a series of advantages, the first of which is increased profitability.

“Generally, robots work more slowly but more consistently than humans, since they don’t get tired, bored, distracted or sick,” she says. “As a result, autonomous robots can help manufacturers maximise productivity to meet increased demand.” She adds that lights-out manufacturing can enable businesses to save on energy and operational costs. “A fully automated factory can run ‘with the lights out,’ since human necessities such as lighting, heating, ventilation and air conditioning are eliminated. Robots can also operate in significantly smaller work cells, reducing the costs related to an adequately spacious plant floor,” says Hand. Moreover, she states that robots represent the perfect workforce in dangerous industrial environments, where toxic fumes, rapidly moving machinery or hot surfaces can pose serious health and safety threats to human workers.

Japanese robotics company FANUC has operated lights-out since 2001. Like in a Philip K. Dick novel, the robots at the Oshino FANUC plant self-replicate at a rate of 50 per 24-hour shift, running unsupervised for up to 30 days. The robots take care of all aspects of production, from parts delivery, to assembly, testing, packaging and shipment. Lights-out production is not exclusive to robotics and is already used to produce consumer goods. For example, Philips runs an almost completely automated factory in the Netherlands, where 128 robots with fine dexterity produce about 15 million electric razors a year. The only step in which human workers are involved is quality assurance. However, says Hand, thanks to Autonomous Machine Vision systems such as the INSPEKTO S70, recently launched by Israeli-German company Inspekto, even this phase might soon be fully automated.

So, what about the future for human workers – are their positions secure or increasingly precarious in the modern workplace? Far from making human workers redundant, Hand argues that lights-out manufacturing could help retain employees by allocating them to more rewarding positions. “While robots focus on repetitive, monotonous or hazardous tasks, their human counterparts can be requalified and assigned to more complex tasks that require judgement-based thinking and problem-solving skills,” she says. “For this reason, it’s important that employers invest in educating and training their workforce, and that employees understand the importance of this education to remain competitive in a rapidly changing job market.”

Findings from a report published by global recruiter Robert Walters and market intelligence firm Vacancy Soft titled ‘Harnessing the Power of AI: The Demand for Future Skills’, states that up to 30% of jobs (10.5 million) in the UK are considered to be ‘highly automatable’ and therefore at risk to change, with professionals not possessing the skills to accommodate the AI revolution. The report claims that by 2020, approximately 75 million jobs would have been displaced across the globe as a result of the emergence of AI. It adds that mid-skill workers are most at risk, with data illustrating that employment growth has been greatest at the extreme ends of the spectrum (top and bottom 20%) while in-between there has been a decline, resulting in a hallowing out of jobs for the middle-tier workforce. Within the industry this displacement of mid-skill workers has become known as the ‘automation paradox’.

However, Ollie Sexton, principal at Robert Walters, believes it isn’t all bad news when we consider the impact of AI on the job market. “As businesses become ever more reliant on AI, there is an increasing amount of pressure on the processes of data capture and integration,” he says. “As a result, we have seen an unprecedented number of ‘next generation’ roles being created with data skillset at their core. In fact, data-related roles across the board have increased by 80% since 2015. What has been the most interesting to see is the emergence of data scientist as a mainstream profession – with job vacancies increasing by a staggering 110% year-on-year. The same trend can be seen with data engineers, averaging 86% year-on-year job growth.” With such a fast pace of development taking place within lights out’ automation, this technology sphere will undoubtedly continue to rouse lively discussion over the coming months and years. However, on a more festive note, the whole team at Hydraulics & Pneumatics would like to thank you for your continued support during 2019 and wish you a restful, enjoyable holiday period and a happy and successful New Year.

Ed Holden

Editor Hydraulics & Pneumatics magazine

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