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Davos 2022 - involve workers for successful automation, says WEF

Chris Middleton Profile picture for user cmiddleton May 23, 2022
Automation and robotics should never be about rushing into digital renewal and ignoring your loyal workers, speakers at the World Economic Forum in Davos explain

An image of a man in a high viz jacket and helmet watching an automated machine wokr
(Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay )

Industrial robots, automation, digital employees, and other technologies are typically portrayed as the enemies of human workers. The dominant narrative is that a robot in equals humans out, especially when you factor in automation’s ability to run 24x7x365, sometimes in lights-out factories.

But the World Economic Forum (WEF) has long believed that this misrepresents the facts. Pre-pandemic research from the WEF suggested that while job losses would occur in some industries, roles, or tiers, Industry 4.0 technologies would bring about a net increase of 58 million jobs globally over the next few years.

This is because robots create jobs, markets, and businesses, while contributing to growth, efficiency, and productivity. In some areas – for example, in extreme environments like subsea engineering, offshore maintenance, nuclear decommissioning, deep mining, and space – robots can also carry out tasks that are dangerous for humans.

It’s certainly the case that if there was a simple ‘robot in, humans out’ exchange, then unemployment ought to be rampant in highly automated economies, but in general that is not the case.

Take South Korea, for example. According to the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea is by far the world’s most automated country, with a robot density (the number of robots per 10,000 human workers) of 932, over seven and a half times the global average of 126. Yet despite increasing its robot density by 10% every year since 2015, unemployment in South Korea has remained at an average of 3.4% for 20 years. Indeed, it is currently the same as in the UK: 3.7%, which is reportedly Britain’s lowest jobless figure for 40 years.

That is hardly a bot-driven jobs apocalypse. Granted, in some nations automation may create low-grade jobs in sweat-shop conditions, but it may also forge entirely new opportunities and jobs for skilled workers. The keys, therefore, are transferable skills, protected rights, and involving your workforce in key business decisions; after all, that is where much of your real knowledge base lies.

Natan Linder is CEO of frontline operations specialist Tulip. For him, the big opportunity is in what he called “augmented lean” processes – partly because humans have been ignored in the smart factory debate for too long. Speaking at a Davos panel on new manufacturing techniques, he said:

Humans have been forgotten in operational environments. They have not become knowledge workers in the simplest form, and so their ability to change how people work, and companies work, has been limited.

Augmented lean’ focuses on the humans in these environments, giving them the tools to change the work and sustain it, in a digital fashion.

Sharon Burrow is General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). She said:

Fully automated workplaces are still the stuff of science fiction and should probably remain so. But if you’ve invested in people and they know what the business is, then there’s no question that augmentation can assist workers and productivity.

But if you’re not in sync with the workers, if you’re not blending the knowledge and use of technology, then frankly you will be poorer for it as a business. We have to work out how to involve workers on the shop floor to introduce technology at optimum performance, and to monitor its capacity to work. There’s room for a blended approach that will work for everybody, and so gain the trust of the workers.

Barbara Frei is Executive VP and CEO of Industrial Automation at French multinational Schneider Electric, which posted 2021 revenues of €28.9 billion ($30.8 billion) and employs 80,000 people in manufacturing alone. She said:

In improving efficiency and how we can do things better, it has always been our culture to involve people from the shop floor. We have a process […] of asking for ideas and collecting them, putting the metrics together about how they are going to improve performance. But it was all on paper until recently, and therefore it was not so inclusive.

But now, we digitize the whole thing, and so every shop-floor employee can put in his idea and see where it is and how it has it been implemented. [They can ask questions like] How does it impact the overall metrics? What is the performance of my production line, and has it improved?

Just to give you some numbers, we had 35,000 ideas collected and out of this 45% have been implemented. It is powerful, because our employees feel completely involved. They can have a say and see the success almost on a daily basis.

Taking responsibility 

So, the question is, why is the prevailing narrative still that robots, automation, and Industry 4.0 are the enemy? Is it just something that sells newspapers and keeps populations afraid of the future?

The ITUC’s Burrow said:

There are job losses, let's not sugar-coat it. But technology for the unions has also been a success story because it has often made the job easier – if it's good technology and it's applied with confidence. Second, it increases productivity, which allows us to upskill wages where companies have a good practice of social dialogue and collective bargaining. So, we get both skilling and skilled wages.

Today's technology has the threat of job losses, but traditionally, every time we've introduced a wave of technology, the numbers of jobs have actually gone up. So, we talk about, for the climate and for technology, a process called ‘just transition’, where you're engaged with the worker.

You map the skills you need, and you map the jobs. You look at where you can protect and grow jobs – because often you can do that in other sectors of the enterprise. But how do you skill those workers and transfer them?

It’s about taking responsibility for the workplace, engaging the workers, and having a plan, so they can see that they're not just going to be thrown out the door. That's the key, because then the trust is there to make the change.

Schneider’s Frei agreed with that assessment:

By involving the shop floor, you can automate processes. And this is highly motivating for people, because instead of doing a repetitive, not-satisfying, wasted-time job, you get to a much more meaningful one. And then you see the new opportunities, instead of the old ones. And you’re free to do other things, which are the motivating part.

The fear factor

This needs to be a bottoms-up transition, added Tulip’s Linder. Plus, the workforce of the future needs to be actively convinced that manufacturing, operations, and logistics are careers that use the latest digital tools.

If your legs are stuck in the concrete of complex systems and you're not able to quickly take an idea and turn it into something that you can use, change, and iterate, then you're not practising lean.

But we're missing 800,000 people today in operations and it will be three million in the next five years, just in the US alone. Yet if you go to MIT and ask, ‘Who wants to go into manufacturing?’ No one raises their hand. But if you ask, ‘Who wants to work in big data, machine learning, and robotics?’, the whole class raises their hands.

But ITUC’s Burrow warned:

You can't discount the fear factor. There's so much change in the world right now. We are dealing with multiple crises.

Manufacturing is not separate to disruptions in supply chains. It's not separate to the technological growth that means you can onshore some production with fewer workers – and what that means for developing countries who provided the supply chains before.

We need to be open and transparent about what the change is and what it's for. […] If people are part of the solution, then you will get there faster and with much better feeling in the workforce. And that means greater job satisfaction and greater productivity.

A lot of the lack of interest in these jobs comes from the fact that there is no sharing of what the actual work is. We've got to rethink the way we involve people at every step, including our schools and universities.

My take

More than ever, workers need to feel valued, and need authentic, fully earned trust in the system. To succeed, modern economies need to change the narrative that technology adoption is all about fear and resistance, and make it about collaborative improvement, valuing the workforce, and skills.

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