Keeping up with robots | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 18, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:40 AM, June 18, 2017

Keeping up with robots

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The first industrial robot was deployed more than 50 years ago: a 4,000-pound robotic arm meant for moving heavy materials, a task considered hazardous for human workers.

Over the years, robots have evolved significantly and their use proliferated in the manufacturing industry. Today, robots are more intelligent and can handle more sophisticated tasks. They can also accelerate automation and improve quality and safety.

An estimated 1.5 million robots are deployed in the assembly lines all over the world today, and this number is growing steadily.

Moreover, the use of robots is set to extend beyond the manufacturing sector and move into areas such as research and development, customer service, sales, and even healthcare delivery.

With such proliferation, the employment debate will intensify. Business leaders will have to check their readiness to adopt robots and improve business performance, while the society at large will have to examine its preparedness to live in a new world with fewer traditional jobs and more new opportunities.

Business leaders around the world are optimistic that the deployment of robots will improve the productivity of their businesses. Today, global markets are driven by a need to achieve high productivity.

Bangladeshi manufacturing companies that wish to remain competitive and continue to grow in the global market will face the need to adopt robot-driven productivity improvements sooner than other companies.

For example, apparel manufacturing companies in Bangladesh will have to adopt robots to transform their manufacturing processes and compete against their global peers.

The next group to adopt robots in Bangladesh will be manufacturers who rely on imported equipment made by the world's leading companies.

Most of these international manufacturers have started embedding robotics in their new line of products.

For example, steel plants in Bangladesh import furnaces for their plants. A good number of these foreign furnace makers have started making robots to automate the sampling process of steel bath analysis and other testing activities.

Steel manufacturers in Bangladesh will gradually adopt such equipment and smarter manufacturing processes and include robots in their processes.

While businesses continue to adopt robots, they will gain complete benefit only by innovating and creating new business models.

These new business models and process designs will have robots at the centre of each innovation and subsequent decision.

Business leaders worldwide believe that the true impact of robots will be felt only when new business models emerge and begin to transform businesses.

Thus, apparel manufacturing in Bangladesh may be revolutionised in the future.

Robot-driven transformation may lead to a situation where one-fifth of the workforce tasks include an element of robotics, according to a study of the PricewaterhouseCoopers.

In certain industries, human workers will be replaced by robots. In other cases, new tasks where production of the output entails collaboration between robot and human workers will emerge.  The former case will spark a debate around employment, while the latter will encourage the hiring of workers with new skills.

Business leaders and governments need to be ready to address both types of situations in Bangladesh.

For example, apparel manufacturers may require fewer workers to produce the same quantity of garments after deploying robots in their factories.

At the same time, their newly acquired competitive advantage may help them to win more orders from different parts of the world, thereby growing their production.

Higher production will require more human workers but with different kinds of skills.

While the first part of this transformation will substitute human workers with robots, the second part of transformation-led growth will create more employment opportunities.

The workforce of the future should have the requisite skills to cohabit and collaborate with robots to deliver outputs as enhanced productivity will be the new normal for workers in Bangladesh.

The ministries, divisions and councils in Bangladesh responsible for skills development will need to introduce trainings on robotics in their curriculum to develop the workforce of the future.

Furthermore, business leaders of Bangladesh will need to prepare themselves for the challenge of mitigating accidents.

There have been instances of fatal accidents due to a lack of coordination between human workers and robots working on the same or adjacent production line.

Although the number of such accidents has been minuscule, almost all of them made international news.

Such accidents may trigger resentment within a society already grappling with the issue of workforce substitution and unemployment.

Businesses must prepare themselves to manage such risks and should also be ready to invest in robot substitution -- that is, replacing existing robots with more advanced ones.

Many stakeholders are still unable to fully grasp the transformative power of robots. This technology will soon become a part of our everyday life.

Robots will transform the workplace of future too. The success of the new workplace will depend on the success of human-robot collaboration.

 

The writer is an executive director at PwC. The views expressed here are personal.

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