Rise of the robots

Investment in robots is expected to grow 10 per cent each year – so how will that reshape the workforce?
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/16/2015

The year 2025 won’t necessarily be the year your workplace turns into an episode of The Jetsons — with humanoid robots able to perform complex and varied tasks and “speak” via verbal interfacing — but we will see the adoption of advanced robots boosting business productivity by up to 30 per cent in many industries.

That’s according to new Boston Consulting Group research, which also found robots will lower labour costs by 18 per cent or more in countries that are early adopters, including the United States, Japan,China and Germany.

“The cost equation relative to the performance opportunities is reaching an inflection point, and that’s allowing many companies to start to take advantage of robotics and automation where they maynot have in the past,” said Mike Zinser, a Chicago-based partner at Boston Consulting Group and co-author of the research report.

As with any new technology, there will be a slower ramp-up period followed by an inflection point, and a steep upward curve in adoption of that technology, said Zinser.

“We’re starting to hit that inflection point today. So we’re likely to be on a steep curve for probably the next 10 years or so — 2025 is kind of the magic number we’ve looked at in our research,” he said.

“You’ll see a considerable ramp-up, from growth today of two to three per cent a year in robot purchases and installations to 10 per cent growth year over year for the next decade.”

Having robots in the workplace isn’t anything new for industries such as manufacturing, said Marc Saltzman, a Toronto-based technology expert and author.

But what is new are the increasingly advanced capabilities robots have, and the huge investments some companies are directing toward robotics, he said.

Such a dramatic boom in workplace robotics will undoubtedly have significant impacts on the workforce, particularly when it comes to low-skill, repetitive jobs.

“Robots are best at repeatable tasks. They function the best if there is something that they can do over and over again,” said Bryan Webb, COO and CFO of Clearpath Robotics in Kitchener, Ont.

“If you have a requirement for flexibility, where your tasks are very varied, and you’ve got a lot of diversity in the work, then robots are not suited for that.”

The implications will first be seen in certain job functions such as in manufacturing or factories, said Zinser.

“Certainly in some instances you’ll see robotics and automation start to take the place of workers who are performing some tasks,” he said. “The net result is probably that you start to see some declines in the number of jobs, but those are going to be replaced by more and higher-skilled jobs.”

Employers may rejoice in the labour cost savings, but there are downsides as well, said Saltzman.

“They don’t take sick days, even though they could be down for maintenance. On the one hand, they could help your bottom line overtime — even though they’re not cheap to buy and implement and to train on,” he said.

“They are reliable and they are very efficient because of their speed. But on the downside, it means lost jobs. This is going to be something that the next generations are going to definitely be facing.”

Minimizing safety risks

The cost savings versus lost jobs debate is just one piece of the puzzle — potential health and safety applications are another key consideration.

While there are concerns about safety issues the robots could create, as technology has advanced, that has become much less of an issue, said Zinser.

“Another thing we’re finding is robots are able to take on... poor ergonomic-type tasks that the human worker had to take on in the past. So because you’re able to use the robot for some of those tasks, I think you’re actually able to improve the health and wellness of the human workforce,” he said.

“The robots don’t get tired, so some of the mistakes or errors you might see from the human workers who are there for a 12-hour shift or more, the robots are going to be consistent... you remove some of the variability that you’ve had in the past and some of the risk of injury.”

Robots are already being used for dangerous tasks in areas such as mining, said Webb, whose company has helped mining companies re-map a collapsed mine using a remotely operated robot.

Drones are another robotic application that can eliminate some dangerous tasks for human workers, he added.

“The best applications for robotics are dull, deadly, dirty jobs because those are jobs that typically people don’t want to do anyways,” he said.

Your friendly neighbourhood office robot

Robotics will not stay limited to areas such as manufacturing, factories, mining or oil and gas, said Zinser — we’re seeing many different applications for robotics in other sectors.

“You’re starting to see the number of tasks that robots are able to perform expand considerably. So with advances in visioning systems... and their ability to work alongside workers as opposed to behind the cage, like they have in the past, you’re actually creating many for situations for robots to be involved,” he said.

Companionship robots are one application used by hospitals such as the Alberta Children’s Hospital, which has a two-foot-tall,childlike robot named MEDi, which helps children with the anxiety of medical procedures such as seasonal flu vaccines.

Hospitality robots are another application — Yotel,a high-tech hotel chain, uses a robotic arm named Yobot at its New York City location, which helps visitors with their luggage.

It may soon be common even for office workers to get a little help from the office robot,according to Webb.

“For example, we’ve got a couple of tele-presence robots in our office. So what that means is basically if we’ve got someone who is working from home or working remotely,then they can log in to a robot, and they can drive it around into their meeting. So we have those robots already,” he said.

We’ll soon see other tasks automated, such as mail delivery around the office, cleaning tasks and even night-shift security work, he said.

High-tech help wanted

The story isn’t quite as simple as more robots equals fewer jobs, said Webb — instead, as robots begin to be more common in the workplace, we’ll see shifts in the type of worker that is needed.

“With new technologies that focus on automation, you’ll see a shifting of the workforce. Naturally, robots replace certain tasks and certain jobs in the workplace. But what that does is it increases the overall productivity of the organization,and it’ll create jobs in other areas of the business,” he said.

“What essentially we see in society is robotics are going to allow people to concentrate on more intellectual work, and more diverse, creative work.”

Some lower-skill jobs will likely remain, such as waiters, administrative assistants, hairdressers and bank tellers — basically any job that has a high amount of variability or a changing environment, he said. It will also be easier to become an entrepreneur because many basic and time-consuming tasks such as sorting or shipping could be automated.

Although the U.S., China and Japan are at the forefront of robotics, Canada is also in a good position to be an early adopter, said Zinser.

“We’d expect that Canada is going to be a more aggressive adopter of robots than some other countries might be,” he said.

And the next-generation Canadian workforce will have to adapt by brushing up on technology skills and STEM education, said Saltzman.

“Definitely, it’s a way to future-proof your career.”

It’s still early days, but in the near future,robotics will represent a seismic shift, said Saltzman.

“If the Internet was the biggest thing in our generation, I think robotics will be the next big thing for the next generation… there’s so much opportunity there.”

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