Unlike the trials of driverless cars such as Uber, Google and Tesla, adoption of autonomous vehicles in warehouses and factories has progressed past the prototype stage, as part of a rapid, global shift toward automation.

According to the 2019 MHI Industry Report, robotics and automation has the fourth highest potential to create a competitive advantage (40%), and the highest potential to disrupt the industry (24%). Due to this, 32% of businesses have already adopted robotics and automation, and another 39% are expected to adopt the technology within the next five years. Due to these factors, by 2021, global trade in mobile robotics is forecast to be worth $18.7 billion.

While companies are excited and eager to adopt this technology in their own facilities, workers are concerned about the impact automation will have on employment opportunities. 

Chart 1: Adopting robotics and automation is likely to give companies a competitive advantage. The technology also has the highest potential to disrupt the market.

Repetitive Tasks Can be Automated Without Job Loss

There are very few jobs that can be fully automated, since the human brain is too valuable to replace in many situations. More likely, certain tasks within a job could be automated to ensure operations run more efficiently. In a typical job role, less than half (45%) of tasks can be automated since anything requiring extensive decision-making, problem-solving or communication skills, for example, is done best by people. Jobs that require these higher value-added skills, rather than the repetitive or boring jobs that can be automated, are also the jobs that workers are most interested in performing. 

Most companies pursue policies of “collaborative automation,” with robotics used to support people, rather than replace them. Amazon, for example, has deployed 30,000 robots in its warehouse facilities since 2014, but the company has also hired 50,000 staff to run its picking and logistics operations.

Automation can support workers by doing repetitive, dull or dangerous activities that often add less value, but needs to be done. Over 40% of workers spend at least a quarter of their work week on repetitive tasks. If repetitive tasks were automated, those workers would spend more time on value-added tasks (72%) and interesting or rewarding tasks (78%), increasing efficiency at and interest in work. 

With that in mind, it becomes strikingly clear that organizations that invest in automation will be at a huge competitive advantage and be best prepared for the future of work.

— Gene Farrell, Senior Vice President of Product, Smartsheet

Image 1: Workers performing value-added tasks that cannot be replaced by automation.

Automation Leads to New Job Roles

Along with assisting workers in the aspects of their jobs that are less valuable, automation also creates new work opportunities by generating demand for new, higher-skilled technical positions. For example, PWC and the Manufacturing Institute foresee a future where there is a need in the labor market for highly-skilled logistics technicians who are responsible for managing highly sophisticated automated systems. 

The current generation wants the opportunity to be creative and solve challenging problems. They are not infatuated with the mundane.

— Randy Bradley, Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management, University of Tennessee

This switch toward higher-skilled technical roles enabled by automation will ultimately result in higher net employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that jobs in materials handling and transportation will grow by 4.8% between 2014 and 2024, a net increase of close to half a million positions

Adoption of automation is becoming more and more common in warehouses and factories, but companies will always require human workers for the higher value-added tasks. If the greater efficiency and agility afforded by automation helps the logistics sector to grow, so will demand for these emerging occupations.


A look at industrial automation: from cages to mobile collaboration


A look at industrial automation: from cages to mobile collaboration

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