Before robots are installed in a production environment, robotics integrators often use site visits to fully understand the current setup and workflow. During these site visits, the robotics integrators sometimes experience remarkable requests from the organization’s management. For example, managers have asked integrators to not wear their work clothes, to not use the word ‘robot’ or ‘cobot’ and even to lie to employees about the reason they are there.
These odd requests are a result from the management’s fear that their employees believe robotics to have a negative impact on the work environment. Sometimes an organization’s management even believes or experiences the robots to be sabotaged by their employees. All because their employees could fear losing their job. But is this fear of robots justified? Will the ever growing automation capabilities of humanity lead to a decrease or an increase of jobs?
This question has no straightforward answer. After all, no one has proven to be able to predict the future. However, if we consider the past, we can attempt to predict the answer.
Automation: increased efficiency and working conditions
Automation of human tasks is a trend that has been present for a large part of human history. Where medieval monks used to spend their lives copying books by hand and people used to do organization’s calculations by hand, nowadays these tasks are all automated. Have these technological advancements resulted in massive unemployment rates?
The answer is no.
The automation advancements during the industrial revolution and the past decades, including the introduction of robots and collaborative robots, have actually created safer, more efficient and more pleasant working environments. People used to perform tedious tasks in inhumane conditions, resulting in workers quickly becoming sick, injured or unmotivated. Besides these obvious problems, this also meant that people were forced to inefficiently perform their tasks. By incorporating automation and robotics in the production process, efficiency and working conditions have improved immensely, making the current economic and societal situation possible.
Robot use grows rapidly
Increasing efficiency and productivity with robotics is a trend that has been going on for years, and will continue to grow rapidly in the future. According to the World Robotics Report 2018 by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) robot sales growth rates will accelerate to 14% on average per year between 2019 and 2021. It is estimated that between 2018 and 2021 almost 2.1 million industrial robots will be installed all over the world.
This increase in robot sales leads to a fascination with these new technologies, but it also results in fear of the impact robots will have on our lives. People start to wonder what effect robotics will have on the employment prospects in the future.
Changing jobs and reallocating tasks
As has been shown in the past, e.g. the printing press replacing the monks copying books, automation developments such as the implementation of robotics will lead to jobs changing and tasks being reallocated. The fact that (collaborative) robots take over dull, repetitive and dangerous tasks allows for employees to move on to higher-skilled tasks such as production planning. So yes, some jobs will be taken over by robots and other automation solutions, but robots will rather complement than replace people.
A study by the International Federation of Robotics on The Impact of Robots on Productivity, Employment and Jobs (April 2018) confirms this point of view. Some of the main conclusions of the IFR’s report are:
- Robots increase productivity and enable an organization to become or remain competitive through benefits such as faster product development and delivery. It also enables organizations to ‘reshore’ or bring back part of their supply chain that they have previously outsourced to cheap-labor countries.
- Collaborative robots increase the productivity of human coworkers and simultaneously reduces the risk of workplace injury and low job satisfaction due to the often repetitive and physically challenging work.
- Increased productivity can lead to increased demand, thus creating new job opportunities. Overall, the automation in the past decades has led to an increase in labor demand and has had a positive impact on wages.
- The future will encompass robots and humans cooperating. The McKinsey Global Institute suggests that less than 10% of jobs can be fully automated. According to their analysis, most occupations will change rather than automated away. The International Federation of Robotics’ experience supports this point of view. They believe in a future where robots and people will work together, each doing what one does best, with a positive impact on both the organizations and the people who work there.
Cooperation between robots and people
The concern about future employment and future jobs is an understandable effect of the ever increasing automation possibilities. Many people fear that robots will take over their job. However, as shown by the IFR report, facts prove otherwise. There are many researches available indicating that robots will complement instead of substitute for labor and thereby increase the safety, efficiency and quality of work. It will allow employees to concentrate on different, higher-skilled tasks. Hence, instead of reducing employment possibilities, robots and people will cooperate and create a positive impact on the future.
Together, they will shape the way we work in the future.