There is a widespread fear that when new machines are installed on the factory floor, large numbers of jobs swiftly disappear. The machines in question may change over time—few of us would view weaving machines as a threat to our livelihood today, after all—but the worry that automated technology will negatively impact employment has existed since the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century.
These apprehensions have caused many people to dismiss the facts and possibilities of robotics in the workplace. It is time for us to rethink the role and the realities of automation. It is time that we stop thinking in terms of “man vs. machine,” and start thinking in terms of “man with machine.”
Misconception and reality
One explanation for the pervasive belief that robots are “stealing” jobs is that all industrial robots are often painted with the same brush. In reality, industrial robots vary greatly. Lightweight, collaborative robots, or cobots as they are often called, differ enormously from traditional industrial robots that must be kept behind safety shields in order to avoid contact with humans. In fact, these cobots were developed with the intention of allowing the skills of man and machine to be combined.
According to a recent study carried out by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the number of robots sold globally will have doubled to about 400,000 units by 2018. 70 percent of those sales will come from China, Japan, USA, South Korea and Germany. South Korea is the front-runner of this group, deploying 478 industrial robots for every 10,000 employees in the country. In China, this figure currently stands at 36 units per 10,000 employees. Looking at the real numbers–in these cases 4.8 or .4 robots for every 10,000 employees—should give us some perspective and calm our fears that automation will wipe out mass numbers of jobs.
When humans and robots collaborate, both can utilise their strengths to compensate for the weaknesses of the other.Man vs machine
For instance, when robots take over minor assembly tasks, employees can move on to more nuanced assignments that require human ingenuity. When an unexpected issue arises on the production line, staff can quickly problem solve and step in to reposition and reprogram lightweight robots to accommodate the task at hand.
Examples of this collaborative give-and-take can be seen at Australia’s Prysm Industries, a family-run contract plastic injection moulding company. Many of the products made at Prysm require the application of an adhesive label. In the past, operators would stand in one spot for hours at a time, applying labels to products every 6-7 seconds. Naturally, human error would sometimes occur, to say nothing of the monotony of the task.
Prysm decided to deploy a Universal Robots robotic arm in order to automate this repetitive activity and free up their staff to take on other responsibilities. With the labelling tasks taken care of, employees are able to focus on running several more machines and can engage in more varied and engaging tasks across the factory floor.
Staff members feel a sense of pride from having learned to operate the robot, and their ability to work on other activities has increased their job satisfaction. To boot, Prysm now saves $550 in labelling expenses every day that the robot is in action.
Prysm represents just one of the many success stories we consistently hear from companies that deploy collaborative robots.
The possibilities for robots are as vast as our imaginations. We all stand to gain much more if we put aside unfounded fears and instead focus on the opportunities these flexible and adaptive machines can bring to the workplace.