Collaborative robots could save Australian manufacturing jobs and boost small business
YOU might be worried that a robot is coming for your job, but it’s much more likely that they’ll become your favourite co-worker — or at least your most reliable. And they could help save Australian manufacturing jobs.
Most companies struggle to automate given the high cost associated with traditional robotics but a new generation of lightweight, modular, fast-to-deploy robots is promising to be a boon to small and medium-sized companies.
Thanks to advances in sensor technology and computing power, so-called collaborative robots — or cobots — are working alongside humans to perform average tasks, taking the mundane and repetitive jobs while allowing small and medium businesses to increase efficiency.
“People have to look upon it as an assisted tool for them to do their work a lot better, a lot faster, rather than a replacement for them,” says Shermine Gotfredsen from Universal Robots, a major global producer of cobots.
She is the general manager for South-East Asia and Oceania at the global robotics company founded in Denmark which manufactures cobots designed to “replace human operators in dirty, dangerous and dull jobs to reduce repetitive strain and accidental injuries.”
While robots are great at repetitive tasks, humans still beat them at delicate, complex jobs and are needed to manage the bots.
Ms Gotfredsen was in Sydney earlier this month for the National Manufacturing Week where a major trend was an ongoing push to “make automation available to businesses of different sizes,” she told news.com.au.
There are a number of companies around the world producing cobots and on average they cost about $30,000 each. They are far smaller, transportable, and don’t require the training or extensive health and safety measures of stationary industrial robots, which are often kept behind cages if working with people.
HELPING AUSTRALIAN MANUFACTURING
Because of the small size, and easily programmable nature, robots are beginning to be used by small and medium businesses to perform a wide range of tasks. They’re mostly employed to do traditional applications like packing and repetitive manufacturing jobs, but online videos also show cobots making omelettes at a food stall, pouring beer and making coffee.
“It’s really not limited to any particular application because of the 360-degree of rotation, the flexibility and the modular design,” Ms Gotfredsen said. “It makes it almost like having an extra human arm to work with different tasks.”
Universal Robots is targeting Australian small and medium-sized businesses as it looks to expand into the region.
“What’s interesting is that we’re seeing the robots used in non-traditional industrial application such as in restaurants helping chefs to prepare food and in the entertainment industry to help filmmakers in different ways,” she said.
The hope is cobots could even help keep jobs local and stop them from moving offshore. Instead of killing jobs, a certain level of automation could boost productivity.
“I’m hoping we can see this trend in Australia considering so many manufacturing jobs have left Australia in the past decade,” Ms Gotfredsen said.
‘IT WAS A MATTER OF SURVIVAL’
That has been the experience of Californian company Professional Finishing which provides liquid and powder coatings to devices for the computer, lighting, medical, scientific, building, aerospace and military industries.
The owner turned to the robots after learning of impending large wage increases for workers. “It was a matter of survival for us,” business co-owner Dawn White told the publication. “We would have closed in less than two years if we had not brought in the robots. Everyone here would have lost their jobs.”
In the end, it freed up workers for less strenuous tasks and increased overall efficiency.
“The operator would have to do a lot of bending, crouching, lifting the part, twisting, just all day long,” Chad, Dawn’s husband, said. “The robot now does all that for them. And now the operators who used to paint these parts are now actually running the robot.”
THE MYTH OF THE ROBOT TAKEOVER
There is no shortage of doom and gloom predictions about robots making many of our jobs obsolete. While there is some truth to that, they will also create new jobs and opportunities for human workers.
The rise of robotics and artificial intelligence isn’t the first time people thought new technology would put humans out of work. Nonetheless, millennials are concerned many of their job prospects will get automated away. Adaptability will likely be the name of the game.
A federal Senate committee investigating the impact of technological and other changes on the future of work and workers in Australia held a public hearing in Adelaide this week.
As part of the inquiry, a survey was undertaken by the Economic Society of Australia which polled 33 of Australia’s most eminent economists, asking their views on robots, artificial intelligence and the future of work.
Nearly 60 percent disagreed that robots and AI were likely to increase substantially the number of workers in Australia who were unemployed for long periods. While 75 percent agreed that such technology would create benefits large enough to compensate negatively affected workers for their lost wages.
“There is no evidence to suggest that rapid technological change creates higher unemployment, although for some workers there will inevitably be displacement,” ANU economist Professor Bruce Chapman said in his response to the survey.
His thoughts echo those made in a McKinsey Global Institute report released in December titled Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions In A Time Of Automation.
The report claimed 60 percent of occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent work activities that could be automated.
“Even as it causes declines in some occupations, automation will change many more. It will also create new occupations that do not exist today, much as technologies of the past have done,” the report said.
“Our scenarios across 46 countries suggest that between almost zero and one-third of work activities could be displaced by 2030, with a midpoint of 15 percent.
“Even with automation, the demand for work and workers could increase as economies grow, partly fuelled by productivity growth enabled by technological progress.”