• Anna Yingst

The Reality of Robotics: How Automation is Reshaping the Workplace

When people think about robots, they might imagine sci-fi inspired automatons or self-driving cars dominating the highway. While the idea of machines replacing humans in the workplace has been a perpetual concern since the first industrial robot in 1962, it is hard to put an actual definiton on modern robots or explain how they will change our world.

The global market for industrial robots is expected to reach almost 70.6 billion U.S. dollars by 2028, after reaching 43.8 billion in 2021. Economic trends in improving manufacturing and industrial work efficiency are at the forefront of these new advancements and have divided public opinion on the merits and limitations of rapidly employing this technology. While proponents argue that robotics increases productivity and produces jobs, others see it as displacing workers and creating a decline in wages.

Source: AP

Even though today's industrial robots are far from the ones in dystopian action films like iRobot and The Terminator, they are increasingly shaping the capabilities of the workplace and the quantity of accessible and adequately paid job opportunities in manufacturing. Through economic side effects, innovative technologies in robotics, and the future predictions for the manufacturing industry, the newly coined “Robot Revolution” has the potential to fundamentally transform the modern job market.

While automation is the process of using technology to complete human tasks, robotic teams are the process of developing robots to carry out new functions. A warehouse robot could improve order fulfillment time and reduce manufacturing costs, while a disinfection robot could limit pathogen exposure in a hospital by transporting supplies. While the industrial robotics market has traditionally represented the manufacturing industry, it has already given way to other influential technologies like autonomous vehicles and customer service robots.

The widening application of these machines means that the public will begin to see the positive and negative effects it has on the workplace and how sustainable this rapid growth will be in the future. While increased machine use can aid in achieving increased productivity, many worry that it will “outpace the capacity of governments and society to adapt to the changes that new technologies bring about, as they can affect labor markets, perpetuate inequalities and raise ethical questions.” Estimates of robot use, or “robot intensity,” vary widely due to demographics and the state of the economy in each market. For example, the Midwest has experienced the greatest concentration of robotics due to its high level of manufacturing.

In a report analyzing the impact of robots from 2009-2017, researchers found that while robots were displacing jobs, the overall economic expansion was large enough to offset some of these losses. However, in the Midwest region, young, less-educated workers have experienced job losses, as the employment-to-population ratio falls by an estimated 3.5 percentage points for an increase of one robot per thousand workers. This is associated with a 4.0 to 5.0 percent decline in their individual wages. The authors of the study suggest that "the experiences of young Midwestern minority and women workers, employers, and their communities can help other parts of the country prepare for and minimize the economic, social, and cultural adjustment costs associated with the introduction and diffusion of robots.”

Yet, companies are continuing the crusade to invest in automation. Amazon notably spent $40 million in October of 2021 on a new robotics research facility. Though the factory created 200 new jobs, some analysts still say that labor-saving is the main goal of new technology. Subodha Kumar, a professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business, predicts that “In the long run, if [Amazon] are not going to innovate and automate, they will not survive.” Improvements in this technology have the dual consequence of adversely affecting employment through the displacement effect, or simplifying tasks and creating jobs through increased productivity.

This rapid pace and minimization of dull and repetitive work leads workers to question what new jobs will be created. A 2018 report by the World Economic Forum predicts that in-demand roles like data analysts and scientists, software developers, and other roles that are based on and enhanced by technology will emerge. Although automation can wholly replace some routine manual occupations and factory jobs, the need for other technologies and human intervention is still essential since there are services that robots can’t do that require creativity, innovation, and emotion.

Mark Nall, a program manager for NASA, noted in a PEW research center study that robots and AI are different than previous disruptions in manufacturing, “due to their versatility and growing capabilities, not just a few economic sectors will be affected, but whole swaths will be…economic efficiency will be the driver. The social consequence is that good-paying jobs will be increasingly scarce.”

In the past decade, European companies and countries have worked to gain this economic efficiency and a competitive economic advantage by integrating collaborative robots (cobots) that can work directly with workers and reduce job loss by interacting with pre-existing employees in a shared workspace. However, the use of these new technologies has weakened as robot programming interfaces are not standardized and lead to capital-intensive integration challenges. They may be too slow, payload-limited, and far less capable than humans in some operations. Yet, due to worker protections in Europe that limit layoffs, some companies have found that involving workers in redesigning the manufacturing lines results in a better acceptance of new technology, since “automation applied to an inefficient operation will (only) magnify the inefficiency.”

Growth in the global industrial robotics market is also expected to be driven by fully autonomous 3D mobile scanning integration technologies, especially by a collaboration project between FARO Technologies Inc. and Massachusetts based robotics firm Boston Dynamics. FARO Trek, released in August 2020, is an autonomous mobile scanning integration that can efficiently map manufacturing facilities through laser scanning and imaging capabilities. In a pilot program with Ford, the “Spot” robots were used to produce highly detailed maps that engineers could use to modernize the facility. As high-profile companies like Ford and Amazon integrate these technologies into their daily operations, we may see increased funding towards research and development in the robotics industry.

However, the future of robotics, especially after the economic unrest caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, is veiled in uncertainty where predictions of job gains and losses vary widely. In a 2020 report by the World Economic Forum, the organization cites that automation will “supplant about 85 million jobs by 2025…its analysis anticipates the future tech-driven economy will create 97 million new jobs.” While 30% of all tasks are done by machines, they believe that by 2025, the balance will change to a 50-50 combination of humans and machines.

Through these recent advancements and the changing economy, the “Robot Revolution'' has inspired a confusing mix of admiration and fear. Robotics can increase productivity and efficiency, but they can also displace jobs as employers move towards automation. Yet, the rapid adoption and growth of these technologies has proved that previously infeasible ideas are becoming increasingly plausible in the modern workplace.