Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and with the advent of each new technological advancement, the questions arise: Will machines eventually replace us? Will we know when we have gone too far?
With the recent rise of AI technology and the push for increased automation following pandemic-induced worker shortages, these questions are again at the forefront of our minds. But are these fears valid? Should we be hesitant about moving forward? If history is a guide, it has demonstrated that automation has thus far greatly benefited workers and the global economy overall.
Looking Back on Automation
Automation, which refers to the use of technology to replace human labor, has been responsible for significant changes in the workforce over the years. From the onset of the industrial revolution in the 19th Century driven by steam power, to the arrival of programmable computers in the mid- 20th Century, the introduction of automation has had profound societal impacts. First moving people from their farms to cities, and later from factories to offices. Each of these societal shifts naturally resulted in job losses in certain fields, but great gains in others. People’s knowledge and skills inevitably adapted. Few would argue that we should return to a time before this. However, fears of technological unemployment persisted throughout each of these industrial transformations. Yet, the benefits of automation prevailed.
The Case for Automation
Automation offers numerous advantages, including increased productivity, enhanced product quality, and reduced costs for both consumers and businesses.
The advent of robotics has played a particularly important role in expanding the potential of automation, enabling more efficient, consistent, and precise execution of tasks previously handled by humans. Replacing repetitive manual tasks with automated robotic systems leads to greater productivity and output. And this doesn’t just refer to turning the wheels of capitalism faster – it also means that crucial products can be pushed out quickly to the people that rely on them, and at a more affordable cost.
Consider the case of Cretex Medical, a contract manufacturer in the medical device industry. They faced the challenge of scaling up the production of a critical component for intravascular lithotripsy (IVL) catheter devices. The manual manufacturing process, involving an assembly no larger than an eyelash, placed a significant burden on the workers. To meet the high demand for this product and improve efficiency, automating the manufacturing process became imperative for Cretex Medical. Fortunately, advancements in robotics provided a solution, enabling the automation of the micro-assembly process using the Meca500 – the world’s smallest, most compact, and precise industrial robot arm. This innovation not only increased production speed and yield but also reduced the overall footprint of the process. This meant that Cretex Medical could meet its demand and medical providers could have quicker access to crucial equipment for their patients.
The improvements in productivity from robots are massive and scalable. In another example, SDC, an engineering company that specializes in designing and building custom machinery used for factory automation, was able to increase throughput by a whopping 500% by using the same robots.
These increases in throughput enabled by automation drives the cost of goods down, enhancing the accessibility of advanced products to the public. Furthermore, by enabling machines to work continuously, automation allows human labor to be freed up for more creative endeavors, resulting in remarkable advancements across various sectors, including healthcare, logistics, and agriculture.
Addressing Labour Shortages
The significance of automation and our reliance on it was particularly evident during the pandemic, as the manufacturing industry faced significant labor shortages causing delays in the output of essential products. This situation prompted the widespread adoption of robots to meet the increased demands and bridge the workforce gap.
Labor shortages continue to be a pressing issue in manufacturing. During a webinar organized by the Association for Advancing Automation on June 15th titled “Smart AI Automation to Tackle Labor Shortages and Increase Productivity,” Matt Jones, the VP of US Sales and Operations for Micropsi Industries, addressed this issue. Jones cited that in February 2023 there were 750,000 unfilled manufacturing positions. Deloitte predicts that by 2030, this number will reach 2.1 million, with a trillion-dollar opportunity cost. According to Jones, this is in part due to the declining appeal of manual, monotonous factory jobs. People are now seeking more personally fulfilling positions. AI can effectively replace the repetitive aspects of these jobs, making them more attractive and opening up opportunities for more desirable positions. For example, AI in manufacturing includes predictive maintenance, which can save countless hours, up to months of time, for data analysts by identifying trends for future issues likely to arise from logs and records.
This raises the question: if automation is replacing so many jobs, how is it possible that there are hundreds of thousands of unfilled manufacturing positions?
Challenges to Come
It is important not to overlook the initial displacement of jobs due to automation. The World Economic Forum estimates that by 2025, automation may displace around 85 million jobs, while simultaneously creating approximately 97 million new jobs. To keep up with this huge displacement of jobs, governments must implement regulations to ensure that workers receive adequate training in conjunction with technological shifts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) predicts that by 2030, almost half of the global workforce—around 1.1 billion workers—will require significant reskilling. However, if this is done properly, the World Economic Forum predicts that investment in reskilling and upskilling of the current global workforce could potentially boost the GDP by $6.5 trillion by 2030.
While the journey may not be without challenges, history has repeatedly shown that people adapt, leading society towards a more educated and advanced state. According to a report by the McKinsey Global Institute, automation technologies could potentially increase global productivity growth by 0.8 to 1.4 percent annually by 2030. So, while a significant amount of jobs will be displaced in the coming decade by the increasing use of automation, with proper investment in upskilling the workforce, the global economy could see huge benefits.
An Unimaginable Future
Imagine trying to explain to a horse and buggy owner, before the invention of cars, that their services would one day be completely obsolete. It would have been beyond their wildest imagination. They might have even feared such a future. Similarly, we cannot currently envision the types of jobs that will arise from widespread automation. But this lack of imagination should not be a cause for fear. Throughout history, technological advancements have consistently brought us benefits and improvements. And just as it has done before, history will surely repeat itself.