Workplace automation looks to “man with machine”

Friday 9 Aug 2019

The exponential growth of e-commerce and warehousing is changing how consumers shop and how they receive their goods and services. It’s also changing the workforce that supports these pillars of business. In order for employers and employees to continue effectively supporting such growth, the aid of automated processes is vital.

By 2025, more than half of the total time spent on labour will be handled by machines, according to the World Economic Forum's " The Future of Jobs 2018" report, Inc. reported. Furthermore, nearly 50 percent of companies expect automation will lead to some reduction in their full-time staff by 2022, while 38 percent surveyed expect to grow their workforces to new productivity-enhancing roles.

It’s no surprise that many large companies today are investing in robots, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to save money and improve processes. The question now is how humans and robots can effectively work together.

It’s not a ‘man vs. machine’ approach — it’s a ‘man with machine’ approach

Collaboration between humans and AI enhances each other’s complementary strengths. In fact, when humans and machines work together, businesses achieve the most significant performance improvements, according to research involving 1,500 companies by Harvard Business Review.

What makes humans different from machines is they can excel at leadership, teamwork, creativity and social skills. On the other hand, machines specialize in speed, scalability and quantitative capabilities. Business requires both kinds of proficiencies—and that’s where a blending of human, AI and automation capabilities is key.

Warehouses of the future will have humans working in tandem with a collaborative robot, or cobot, according to Supply Chain Drive. These machines will be able to take on tedious, repetitive tasks so that staff can grow and develop, and eventually take on more rewarding, mindful work.

Even today, in the retail environment, humans and robots can be seen working together in a major way. At more than 1,500 Walmart locations, thousands of automated shelf-scanners, box-unloaders, artificial-intelligence cameras and other machines doing the jobs once left to human employees can be found, the Washington Post reported.

Combining the unique, strategic thinking of humans with the efficiencies that automation and AI offer will be vital to helping warehouses and retailers of the future prosper. For example, humans could make more use of voice-enabled and wearable mobile technology to make picking and receiving more efficient, resulting in a ‘bionic’ worker that uses technology to become more productive. Also, automated processes involving robots or drones picking up items in giant labyrinthine warehouses could help control costs and enhance the competitiveness of the retailer.

While machines can tackle certain tasks far better than humans, they still require human intervention for more complex tasks that require strategic, empathetic and creative results, according to Clara Shih, founder of the software company Hearsay Systems, Inc. reported. This approach is called a “humans-in-the-loop” relationship, where people allow algorithms to process while still overseeing and refining them. Shih emphasized that machines are just one resource humans can use, and that humans, not machines, have the skills needed to make truly useful business relationships.

How the workforce will be affected?

“Most people’s jobs are going to be affected, and it’s going to accelerate pretty rapidly over the next five to 10 years,” according to Boston University professor Iain Cockburn, Boston 25 News reported. “I think that’s a good reason for you to think about upgrading your skills, finding ways to use what we can do better than machines, which is imagination, creativity, judgment.”

Another way of addressing robotics and automation in the workplace is by helping humans develop complementary, not competing, skills with technology, according to Dave Coplin, author of The Rise of the Humans and CEO of the Envisioners, Inc. reported. According to Harvard Business Review, helping employees develop “fusion skills"—those that enable them to work effectively at the human-machine interface—requires a significant commitment from companies.

E-commerce giant Amazon recently demonstrated such commitment by recently announcing plans to spend $70 million to retrain about a third of its American workers to do more high-tech tasks, the New York Times reported. The training program will apply across the company, from corporate employees to warehouse workers, retraining about 100,000 by 2025. Amazon has about 300,000 employees in the United States.

Harvard Business Review also suggested that company roles in the future will be “redesigned around the desired outcomes of reimagined processes, and corporations will increasingly be organized around different types of skills rather than around rigid job titles.”

Photo: Vincent Fournier/Trunk Archive

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