COVID-19 has created a need to adapt and change the way we run our businesses. The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report states that as a response to COVID-19, 50% of surveyed companies have accelerated automation. You may be part of that 50% and may be asking yourself, “How can I assure my employees that automation is a good thing?”
The media loves to stoke the fears of manufacturing workers across the country with headlines like “Robots are stealing our jobs” and “Robots Are taking Over the World.” Even though it is well documented that automation is correlated with job growth, accelerates innovation, and improves worker safety – the fear of job loss and robot domination is still a real fear for our manufacturing workforce.
To successfully implement automation, you need to build a healthy culture that empowers your employees, improves their livelihood(and) follows the principle – “People Before Robots” With the proper vision and culture, your employees will not only welcome automation but will play an important part in successful implementation.
Develop a Socially Responsible Strategy for Automation Implementation
A people-first framework for automation will not only improve the success and performance of your automation projects but will empower your employees. To guide your healthy automation culture building, I reference Sampath and Khargonekar, who created a hierarchy of automation approaches:
Level 0: Cost-Focused Automation
We all start here – to pay for automation there needs to be a return on the investment. However, if one’s approach is predominantly focused on cost savings – you will fail. Not only will workers resist and resent automation, but it will also limit maximum performance.
Level 1: Performance-Driven Automation
A performance-driven approach reengineers systems and processes to take advantage of automation while leveraging human skills and abilities that machines are incapable of replicating. Metrics such as accuracy, scalability, speed, quality, and flexibility drive design instead of cost.
Level 2: Human-Centered Automation
This approach builds on level one but has the core goal to use automation not to sideline people or replace them – but to innovate, augment human capabilities and create new and more rewarding roles for people. The business goals are not just performance optimization but also worker development and enrichment.
Level 3: Socially Responsible Automation
This approach centers on two core goals: driving growth through automation while promoting economic performance and societal well-being. Automation is inherently labor-reducing but is linked to job growth. However, that link does not form automatically. Explicit actions must be taken to use automation to further innovate, improve productivity, increase demand and empower workers which in turn creates worker well-being and economic growth.
How Can I Build a Socially Responsible Automation (SRA) Culture?
- Early and Effective Communication
As early as possible, it is important to build your automation team and communicate to stakeholders and employees how they will be affected by the project. If a worker is going to be displaced, moved, or will experience a role-change, the sooner you can involve them in the project, the more they will feel like they are part of the solution. Listen to their concerns, involve them in the design process and find a new role for them.
- Find Projects with Good Returns on Investment
The return is not always financial. A good automation project will yield a return of freed human-worker capacity, improved worker safety, and an increase in worker job satisfaction. Don’t bite off more than you can chew! It’s important to find a project that not only provides monetary return but fits your skillset and strategy of sustainable growth.
- Use Automation to Empower your Employees
The principle “People Before Robots” states that robot implementation will be more successful if it can be used by all. Train your workers to interact with and fully utilize your automation. Involve as many workers as possible in continuous improvement projects. When a worker is freed from the menial task that automation now completes, utilize their human skills! Automation humanizes the manufacturing floor because it takes human acting like a robot, and frees them up to think, create, innovate and be a human being once more.
- Upskill, Train, Educate and Promote Displaced Workers
Even though the primary reason for automation is to fill the labor shortage8, workers will be displaced by automation. SRA will use the cost savings provided by automation to train, educate and promote displaced workers. For example, Universal Robots “democratizing” approach to automation often takes a production line worker and turns them into a robot operator or continuous improvement specialist.
- Raise your Vision
Automation cannot happen in a black box – it needs to be part of your company’s overarching strategy for growth. If we don’t raise our vision past the immediate and obvious gains from labor savings – we are missing the point and full potential. Automation can increase production capacity to empower your sales team to sell more and reach more customers. Automation will allow you to compete in a global market and keep your factory in the United States with all its rewarding positions. Automation will free up human capital to innovate, create and improve. Use your financial return to hire more workers, train them, educate them and provide raises. If done right, automation can be a tool to improve the livelihoods and success of your employees.
-Christian Hunter, Engineer, In-Position Technologies
- World Economic Forum The Future of Jobs Report 2020
- Robots Are Stealing Our Jobs, Entreprenuer.com
- Here’s How Robots Are Taking Over the World, medium.com
- Industrial Robots Innovating Various Sectors, analyticsinsight.net
- Using Robots to Enhance Worker Safety, industrytoday.com
- Lean Robotics: a guide to making robots work in your factory, Samuel Bouchard, 2018
- Socially Responsible Automation: a framework for shaping the future, Meera Sampath and Promod P. Khargonekar
- Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute Skills gap and the Future of Work Study