Automation and Labor: Can't They Get Along?

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There’s no doubt about it: Automation and robotics in the manufacturing sector are here to stay. In fact, recent research shows that robot orders and shipments in North America set new records during the first three quarters of 2014, accounting for an increase of 35% in units and 22% in dollars over the same period in 2013. 

This trend is hastened by a number of factors, but primarily it’s about costs. While the costs of automation like robotics, vision systems, software, carousels, conveyors, and other systems are declining or remaining relatively static, almost all other costs—labor, land, energy—are rising. This creates a large incentive to automate. It’s particularly strong as these automation technologies are also more effective and flexible than ever. 

But many American workers worry that companies’ increasing investment in automation means they’ll eventually be out of a job. A study by researchers at the University of Oxford indicates there might be some truth to that argument; the report shows that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of being automated in the years to come, due to advances in data mining, machine vision, artificial intelligence, and other technologies.

On the other hand, many would argue that automation doesn’t replace, but rather enhances, skilled labor in the warehouse, paving the way for more efficient, productive, and intelligent industrial operations. All of this begs the question: What is the actual impact of automation on employment?

The following is a look at a handful of ways automation and labor can complement, instead of work against, each other:

Automation as a Solution to the Shortage of Skilled Labor

A recent study from Accenture and The Manufacturing Institute shows that the current lack of skilled and highly-skilled manufacturing workers has measurable financial impacts on U.S. manufacturers, including reduced annual earnings of up to 11% and increased production costs. A Manufacturing Leadership article indicates that shortage-related erosion comes from the greater manufacturer spending on employee overtime, more downtime, quality problems, and customer dissatisfaction, among other factors. 

Worsening skills shortage comes at a time when many older skilled workers are about to retire and as many manufacturers are gearing up to increase production. While it’s not possible (or desirable) to automate every job, finding ways to reduce labor hours (particularly the least value-add hours) is one way to proactively attack the skills gap. Can certain tasks be better executed by robotic automation, more than they already are?  Can increasingly sophisticated programming, vision systems, and effectors help close the gap?  These are questions that are critical to ask as robotic technology grows and expands in the industrial realm.  

Worker Redeployment to Other Areas of the Warehouse

One of the primary benefits of automation is that robots can be used to perform repetitive, boring, or dangerous jobs that workers in the warehouse would not be doing in an ideal world. Robots also deliver something their human counterparts cannot: consistent accuracy and nearly-unlimited performance. Because robots don’t get tired, need sick days, or get injured, they can perform the exact same motion millions of times without complaint or error.

With robots handling the so-called "drudge work" of the industry, employees can be redeployed to areas of the warehouse where they can learn new skills and work in positions they may find more fulfilling. As noted by Amanda Merrell, Marketing Director for, Seegrid, "When you can have automation doing the work of two or three employees, you’re going to run much more efficiently...Automation is really great at repetitive, consistent tasks. So let the employees make the decisions and redeploy them to areas where they can be more productive and more efficient."

Human Labor as a Means to Improve Automated Production Lines

Redeploying workers to more value-added tasks is advantageous for several reasons. In addition to driving productivity by automating repetitive tasks, it can also ensure that workers focus on tasks that require imagination, adaptability, and decision-making skills.

Toyota, for example, uses its human labor as a means to establish ways to improve automated production lines. The idea, according to a Bloomberg article, is for employees to be able to better identify inefficiencies in the process or think up ways to make it better by being more skilled and less "human robots."  Mitsuru Kawai, who has worked at Toyota for more than 50 years, notes in Bloomberg that the company cannot "simply depend on the machines that only repeat the same task over and over again. To be the master of the machine, [organizations] have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine."

One of Cisco-Eagle’s customers once told us that you have to map good processes in order to effectively automate. Automating half-baked process only results in faster, more efficient mistakes. Good automation always springs from excellent processes.

Final Thoughts 

For some employees in the manufacturing sector, the idea of automation and robotics may seem threatening. But there’s no reason to assume that automated systems will eradicate skilled labor anytime in the near future. In fact, as automation increases, new products will likely create new jobs that will require additional workers on the floor. So, instead of worrying about positions being eliminated, employees might try thinking about automation as a means for them to explore new opportunities that may lead to more satisfying work.

How does your organization strike a balance between automation and skilled labor?

Scott Stone is the E-business manager for Cisco-Eagle, Inc, a provider of integrated material handling and storage systems for industrial operations. Scott has over 23 years experience in industrial operations and marketing.