Written by Michael Boonzaayer, Senior Automation Engineer
Are robots taking our jobs? This is a question I get asked a lot. There seems to be a belief that as automation of manual tasks increases, robots are replacing people and there are less jobs for those previously employed in traditional manual labour roles. I would argue that automation actually drives job creation and that the manufacturing industry is transitioning to a different way of doing things. Although robots will never replace humans, they do challenge employees to expand their skills and knowledge into other areas.
Throughout history, there have been distinctive shifts from manual labour to the use of technology. Back in the 16th century all labour was manual labour, but then came the industrial revolution in the 18th century and there was a distinct transition to mechanical manufacturing processes. By the 20th century it was commonplace to see robots in vehicle manufacturing. During each industrial revolution it was just as important to understand how we organised work as it was of technological invention. It is true that as technology transitioned throughout history, jobs were replaced by machines, but on the flip side, more jobs were created by technology. Mankind could never have predicted how jobs would evolve from the 16th century into modern day manufacturing and in the same way, I would argue we cannot foresee what new roles will be created in the years to come.
In current manufacturing, many employees whose manual processes are replaced by automation are often trained with new skills and find themselves with improved working conditions and arguably better job satisfaction.
Often those working in manual labour are tasked with difficult, heavy, dangerous, dirty, and often repetitive tasks. With humans in these roles there is a distinct safety risk for the employee – whether it be repetitive strain injuries, eye injuries, musculoskeletal injuries from heavy lifting, or the breathing of fumes from chemicals, there are a myriad of ways workers can injure themselves. By automating these processes, the employees are better protected from risk, whilst being challenged to learn new skills in a much safer working environment.
Through the deployment of robots, the manufacturing industry is achieving increased productivity through speed, precision, repeatability, and increased throughput never before possible with manual labour. The result is a consistently high-quality finish for every product produced. Once programmed, robots can quickly change programs or alter a product design without the need to train all staff in the new process. Now, you could argue that the robot has taken the job of the manual labourer by completing all of these processes in their place, but remember, new jobs have also been created. Programmers, robot technicians, work cell operators, control engineers just to name a few. These roles did not exist before robotic automation.
By increasing productivity, improving throughput, and eliminating errors, companies have lower overheads, greater profits and more money to spend. This increase in revenue means they can afford to hire new staff, or even expand their operations, often meaning there will be new jobs created in the process.
So, although robots are replacing some jobs, many more jobs are being created in their place. I believe it is just the way the industrial revolution is evolving over time and workers need to learn to adapt and learn the new skills needed for the future. Robots are producing the speed, precision, repeatability, and increased throughput not possible before in a manual process. Automation is protecting workers from hazardous environments and challenging workers to upskill and by being stimulated in these new roles, have better job satisfaction.