Put robots and jobs together, and you might conjure up a faceless automaton that’s set to replace every human and make many businesses redundant. But is this really the case?
Some major players in the Australian manufacturing industry, ranging from big businesses to SMEs, questioned the notion of robots replacing humans at the recent Innovation and Automation in Australian Manufacturing Industries roundtable discussion in Sydney.
Speaking at the roundtable were Peter Roberts, founder of the Australian Manufacturing Forum, Jason Furness, CEO of Manufacturship and ex-general manager of Holden, Shermine Gotfredsen, general manager of Universal Robots for Oceania and south-east Asia, and Matthew Murphy, production manager of family-owned SME Prysm Industries.
According to the speakers, while robots may replace very few jobs, they will help create more opportunities through expansion.
Ms Gotfredsen said the aim of introducing automation through robotics, from Universal Robots’ perspective, is to provide tools to work with employees on labour-intensive tasks, rather than replace them outright.
“The perception of robots is always like machine v man, what about machine with people?” she said.
“We should look at robots as a tool, rather as a person replacing that person.”
She did say, however, that some robots may replace employees outright “in some cases”.
“It's also about staying competitive in the market. If you don’t do that, what's going to be the alternative? Close down the business, and then there will be even more jobs that will be lost.”
Mr Murphy agreed with Ms Gotfredsen, saying that automation through robots allowed his family-owned SME to stay competitive with bigger businesses, and has even led to more jobs through expansion.
“We've increased the size of our business … because of the work that we've got,” he said.
“Our operators [are] able to do more because they're not stuck on one station, just doing a repetitive job.
“For me, it's not really about trying to ... have staff ... roaming the floors.
“It's eliminating those really repetitive, monotonous tasks that no one wants to do, not even the operator.”
Mr Furness said that automation through robots isn’t just a financial issue, but a social one as well.
“There's also real problems with getting skills,” he said.
“[Clients] had to import people on 457 [visas]; they can't find them locally.”
Mr Furness told an anecdote about how at one of his clients’ facilities, there was an issue with apprentices not turning up for work. “So one of [the company's] real options is rely on automated by buying a flexible machine that can do all this,” he said.
“My concern is from a social point of view is, unless you're that top of the tree, and I don't think everyone's going to be capable of that, is, what do we provide by meaningful work?
“Because everyone's cost base is going to be focused on eliminating this.”
“There is a social consequence that in this country we don't want to grapple with.”
Mr Roberts agreed with Mr Furness, saying that the issue of automation via robots has social implications, beyond the financial aspects.
“There is a terrible concern about this period of automation we've entered,” he said.
“Certainly, there are some estimates that half of the jobs ... are going to be replaced by robots in two decades, but this is not different from any other period of automation.
“In the first industrial revolution, half the jobs went immediately. The problem is not [removing] jobs, the problem is within providing meaningful work for people, and distributing the benefits of automation, so it's a social problem rather than a technology problem.”