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Editorials

Politics of automation

by Nigel Smith, President and CEO, TM Robotics
TM Robotics

In January 2018, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released its first ‘Readiness for the Future of Production Report’. It outlines how well-positioned economies are to benefit from Industry 4.0. However, much of the news that has been generated since its release has focused on job losses caused by automation, rather than its potential. Here, Nigel Smith of TM Robotics, examines the risk versus reward of the machine economy.  

Since the first robotic arms were introduced to automotive production lines in the 1960s, the media has been awash with headlines deeming the rise of robotics as the demise of human workers. But, if we look to the past, this situation is familiar.  

Nearly 500 years ago in the UK, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent for an automated knitted invention, believing the machine would deprive young women of employment. Regardless of the lack of patent, factories adopted the machine in a bid to up their productivity and generate higher profits. Today’s scenario isn’t much different.

According to last year’s Annual Manufacturing Report, a significant majority of manufacturers are undertaking or considering a move to Industry 4.0, by investing in intelligent automation software, connected hardware and robotics. The same report cited that an increase in production was the main benefit manufacturers expected to gain from automation and only 27 per cent saw it as a method to reduce staff.

Despite this, media coverage continues to focus on the threat automation poses to jobs. According to a widely-publicised report by PwC, more than ten million jobs could be replaced by robots in the next 15 years with those working in manufacturing industry among the highest at risk. There is no denying that automated technology will change the role of employees in manufacturing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the technology will replace human workers.

Take the Elizabethan knitting machine as a case study. The equipment had been adopted by the majority of Britain’s textile factories by the end of the 19th century. Using the machine, each human worker could manufacture 20 times the amount of fabric they would have weaved manually. However, despite an increase in automated equipment, these factories employed four times as many workers as they did a century earlier. So, how does this work?

A manufacturer that saves money on labour by using automation has two options. Lower their prices or generate more profit — both of which can result in increased investment, higher demand and in turn, more opportunity for employment. Amazon provides a modern example of this phenomenon. In just three years, the company increased the number of robots in its warehouses from 1,400 to a colossal 45,000. During the same period, the rate at which the company hires workers stayed the same.  

As a distributor of industrial robots and partner of Toshiba Machine, we have a vested interest in manufacturers and their investment in industrial automation. However, that’s not the only reason we support investments in automated technologies.

Industry 4.0 will force a shift from labour-intensive production, to knowledge and skills intensive production. Rather than overseeing menial and repetitive manufacturing tasks, like pick-and-place, inspection and assembly processes, factory floor workers will be freed up to manage tasks that require skills, which automation cannot replicate — like human ingenuity, creativity and judgement.

As demonstrated by the uptake of weaving machines in the 19th century, the threat of job losses will not deter manufacturers from investing in automation. In fact, to remain competitive in the global landscape, embracing new technologies is necessary. However, to offset the displacement of menial jobs, manufacturers must invest in the creation of higher-paid, higher-skilled jobs — not only to manage the increased productivity of their factory, but to help make intelligent decisions related to automation.

According to the Readiness for the Future of Production Report, the United States is one of the 25 countries assessed to be in the best position to benefit from Industry 4.0. To maintain this leadership, manufacturers must contest the scaremongering statistics and negative media coverage associated with job losses and automation.

Robots and automation are not here to take jobs, but to create better ones. 

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