The pressure is on for businesses of all types and sizes to find ways to do things faster, better and more efficiently. From this comes a greater level of profitability, a competitive edge, and an ability to embrace sustainability-based values.
Fortunately, rapidly advancing technology has made this achievable. Massive data sets can now be generated to inform complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, which in turn automate long lists of processes, functions and activities.
According to market intelligence company Tractica, by 2022 robotics will be a $237 billion global industry.
But has automation created as many new problems as it has solved? This question particularly pivots around the workforce changes that AI and its associated technologies bring.
The race to embrace the benefits of AI and robotics is largely due to their prized ability to achieve greater productivity, with less waste.
The use of automated technology, materials, energy and water can be closely monitored and managed, as can the labour input and efficiency of each machine.
Data-supported automation can shorten production lead times, and make it possible to hold less stock of basic components. This can also create important quality gains.
Consistency, compliance, safety and time
Automation has also revolutionised business by creating greater consistency and compliance, and reducing the chances of errors or oversights.
For example, allowing cloud technology to mechanise financial data collection, storage, analysis and reporting ensures that submission deadlines are always met. Computerisation of inventory controls and warehouse operations have made picking, packing and transportation processes far more seamless and effective.
Automation reduces the likelihood of Health & Safety issues, particularly those due to “human error”.
It also saves that precious business commodity: time. With many of the checks and balances now provided by AI, personnel are freed from mundane and repetitive tasks and can focus instead on other activities.
Jobs lost due to automation
One of the biggest concerns about automation in business has been the age-old fear of “robots stealing jobs”.
It is true that AI and robotics have changed the composition of workforces, and this is set to continue. For instance, fewer delivery personnel will be needed in future as drones and driverless vehicles become increasingly popular.
Certain categories of job roles are more affected by automation than others, of course. According to research, 30% of traditional vacancies may become obsolete as automation comes of age. In some job classifications, robots could even replace up to 50% of staff.
New sets of skills in demand
However, this is not to say that automation is making humans entirely redundant!
AI integration and robotics may, in fact, create as many jobs as they take due to their ability to grow companies and the economy as a whole.
John Hawksworth, chief economist at PwC, has said: “Major new technologies, from steam engines to computers, displace some existing jobs but also generate large productivity gains. This reduces prices and increases real income and spending levels, which in turn creates demand for additional workers. Our analysis suggests the same will be true of AI, robots and related technologies, but the distribution of jobs across sectors will shift considerably in the process.”
This highlights one of the “issues” with this technological advancement: it’s fuelling huge demand for recruits with certain relevant skill sets. Automation is fed by data, and so demand for data analysts, scientists and managers is outstripping supply.
According to UK job site Indeed, in the three years to 2017 there was a 485% increase in AI related job vacancies.
There are also many other STEM roles that are proving hard to fill globally, making talent mapping and recruitment a key priority in most boardrooms.
Another issue which needs to be addressed to avoid problems with automation is “pushback”. This can come from the boardroom down, as some visionary executives will experience resistance to investing in computerised processes to transform traditional business operations.
Automation requires considerable investment – which is a big ask in a tight economy. It also heavily relies on having authentically relevant data.
Workforce fear and anxiety around automation also needs to be managed well. Any transition to automation should provide quick gains to avoid stirring up business disruption and employee unrest.