We’ve all seen the headlines. Reports warning that the rise of automation and artificial intelligence is set to render human workers useless. A much-hyped report released in 2017 by PwC warned that robots will take 30% of all jobs as soon as 2030, with the Bank of England reporting the even scarier figure of 15 million lost jobs in the near future.
It’s understandable, then, that there is a significant amount of consternation around the so-called ‘rise of the robots’. Two-thirds of Brits say they are ‘worried’ about machines taking jobs from humans, while 60% think automation could trigger an economic crisis, according to a study by Streetbees. Manufacturing, in particular, is undergoing a radical change as factories begin to embrace the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will see humans and automation working closely together. As shopfloors up and down the country begin to fully embrace automation, many workers have been left unsure of their futures.
What if, though, the robots aren’t coming to take our jobs, but to change them, freeing us up to do more meaningful tasks?
Changing roles, not losing jobs
“It’s a common misconception that robots are ‘stealing’ jobs from humans,” says Mark Gray, UK sales manager at Universal Robots. “In simple terms, robots are a tool to make humans more efficient – in much the same way we now use trucks to move goods instead of a horse and cart. Many people, however, see robots as either ‘them’ or ‘us’, which simply isn’t the case.”
The reality is that, far from taking jobs, robots will create them. Research by Deloitte found that between 2000 and 2015, around 800,000 jobs were lost due to technological developments – a figure that was widely reported. What the newspapers neglected to mention, however, is that the next line of that report said that 3.5 million new, high-skilled jobs were created in their place, each paying on average £10,000 more than those that were lost.
“The fear that automation will result in mass redundancies is very real, but for the majority of workers it will mean change rather than loss,” says Dominic Fahy, head of architecture, engineering, construction and manufacturing at Canon. “By automating routine, repetitive, labour-intensive tasks, new technologies will significantly change the way that jobs are carried out. It will create new job roles that didn’t previously exist, such as user-interface designers or robot coordinators.”
This is nothing new, either. During the three previous industrial revolutions, the increased use of technology has led to a rise in jobs. This isn’t confined to manufacturing, either. In 1970s America, bank tellers were worried that the introduction of ATMs would render them redundant – instead of using a human to withdraw money or deposit a cheque, technology would do it for them. In fact, bank staff numbers have increased (indeed, since the year 2000, numbers have increased at a faster rate than general employment figures).
Speaking on the EconTalk podcast, economist and lecturer James Bessen explains what had happened. “The average bank branch in an urban area required about 21 tellers,” he says. “That was cut because of the ATMs to about 13 tellers. But that meant it was cheaper to operate a branch. The banks then wanted, in part because of deregulation but also just for basic marketing reasons, to increase the number of branch offices. And when it became cheaper to do so, demand for branch offices increased. And as a result, demand for bank tellers increased. And it increased enough to offset the labour-saving losses of jobs that would have otherwise occurred. Labour-saving technology had actually created more jobs.
“Cash-handling has become less important for tellers,” Bessen continues. “But their ability to market and their interpersonal skills in terms of dealing with bank clients has become more important. What the ATM machine did was effectively change the job of the bank teller into one where they are more of a marketing person. They are part of what banks call the ‘customer relationship team.’ As a result, their wages have gone up. Banks are hiring more college graduates as bank tellers. And in a whole variety of ways we are seeing changes of this sort where the nature of occupations is getting up-skilled in some fashion.”
Don’t reinvent the wheel
The same logic applies to manufacturing. Implementing automation on some of the more ‘mundane’ shopfloor tasks will free employees up to do more value-adding tasks. “Even SMEs will be able to find a part of their process that can be automated,” says Universal Robots’ Gray. “That may involve removing a human from the production line and redeploying them elsewhere – using the automation as a tool to increase productivity and throughput.”
Despite this, UK manufacturers have been notoriously slow to adopt the Fourth Industrial Revolution. While South Korea leads the world in terms of robot density (number of robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers), with 631, the UK is lagging behind, with a density of just 71. While this is above the global average, it sits well below the European average of 99 – indeed, we are the only member of the G7 group of industrialised nations to hold this dubious honour.
This mindset of not wanting to ‘take the plunge’ is a quirk of British industry, says Simon Adams, managing director of WERMA UK. “If you compare how industry in a country like Germany approaches new business development compared to the UK, they are a lot more willing to take risks to prepare for the future,” he says. “In the UK, we have a lot of SMEs, who will be worried that they can’t necessarily afford automation.
“There’s a fear factor around automation in the UK, where companies assume they aren’t big enough or have enough money to implement it. In reality, it just requires a change in mentality – getting your head around using the digital tools available to get more out of your business. In many ways, it’s similar to what we saw when lean manufacturing techniques first arrived in the UK from the Japanese automotive industry. People saw the benefits of a lean approach instantly, but felt they couldn’t implement it because they weren’t a Japanese car factory.”
It’s a question of education, says Gray. “In the UK, senior management rely heavily on shopfloor buy-in before making a major change when compared to other nations,” he explains. “It’s not scaremongering to educate your staff about the benefits of automation. We can’t ignore it – other markets are adopting robotics at a much faster rate than we are. The way to combat that is to outline the benefits robots can offer and how they can take the ‘horrible’ jobs away from humans.”
It needn’t cost the earth, either. “Automation doesn’t have to come with high capital cost and worrying about getting capex investment from the board,” says Adams. “It’s not reinventing the wheel. You don’t have to ‘buy’ the Fourth Industrial Revolution, you just have to adopt new practices and work a bit more intelligently. After all, automation for automation’s sake won’t get you anywhere. The way it has been spoken about in the past, though, you would be forgiven for thinking that the only way to ‘do’ it is by buying the latest and most expensive automation systems. In reality, though, it comes down to getting your workforce on board and making small, incremental changes.”Ultimately, the most successful companies will navigate the Fourth Industrial Revolution by combining both technology and their people. This is evidenced by a recent study by the University of London, which found that adding automation to a workplace actually makes them more ‘human friendly’. The research found that technology is “amplifying the human experience” in workplaces, with workers being 38% more engaged and enjoying 70% better wellbeing. The reason behind this is simple: automation frees people up to do more creative, strategic and enjoyable work. As Dr. Chris Brauer, director of innovation at the Institute of Management Studies at Goldsmiths, the University of London, says, “Digital technology’s nascent autonomy promises an evolutionary leap in our capacity to grow as human beings. Where businesses are getting it right, the best of our human capabilities are being augmented by technology to create innovation before unimagined.”