With crippling staff shortages across numerous industries, the role of robots and automation in our workplaces is becoming increasingly important. But are they taking jobs away from humans or filling essential labour gaps and keeping industry safely on the rails?
A recent study by IBM showed that AI-driven intelligent automation in the retail sector alone will leap from 40 percent usage to more than 80 percent in the next three years. Experts have staked out a variety of positions on the intersection of adoption, employment, and job security. For the moment, aided by a tight labor market and automation trends coming out of the pandemic, the pendulum seems to have swung toward automation’s role as a driver of overall economic growth. But will that trend last?
I recently virtually sat down with Michel Spruijt, Senior Vice President of International Business at Brain Corp, a robotics automation company that helps power the largest fleet of autonomous mobile cleaning robots in the world. It has seen 400% year on year growth in the use of robots in Europe alone.
Michel, is an industry insider and works for an automation firm, so it makes sense that he’s bullish on automation for the foreseeable future. However he also has some remarkably keen insights on the robot/human worker dynamic and speaks regularly with leaders from across retail, logistics, transport, education, and healthcare about how they view the ideal balance between automation/robotics and human teams.
GN: How have you seen perception of automation solutions change over the pandemic among the general public?
Michel Spruijt: Among the general public, robots have always been a sign of innovation and “coolness” when seen in public. What has changed is that now people also recognize robots as necessary and useful – contributing real value to certain operations such as cleaning floors. This puts companies in a great position to leverage robots as they can capitalize on the added productivity and brand value.
A common misconception that is lessening amongst the general public is the idea that robots take jobs away from humans. In today’s business landscape where companies face high levels of job shortages and overburdened teams are asked to get more done with less resources, robots can lend a helping hand to immediately fill in gaps. The negative effects of staff shortages are being felt by all of us and robots are recognized as an innovative solution.
GN: How about among industry — what kind of adoption patterns are we seeing in retail, logistics, transport, education, and healthcare? What accounts for that?
Michel Spruijt: The pandemic has taken automation solutions, and in particular robotics, from nice to haves to must haves. This has resulted in an increase in the deployment and usage of robots. While retail has been a key adopter of BrainOS-powered AMRs, it is not alone in its increased usage over the last year. In fact, we’ve seen usage surge in other verticals like airports, malls, offices, industrial environments, education facilities and hospitals.
Increased coverage in square feet – October 1st, 2020, to October 1st, 2021:
While we understand robot usage has increased dramatically during the pandemic, we project this overall trend to continue to rise because of the value robots are adding to businesses – driving efficiency, improving safety and bringing cost-savings. We’re excited to see what the future holds.
GN: This feels like a moment of transition: Automation is spreading in the industries above but we’re a long way from being fully automated. Where are the growing pains likely to crop up?
Michel Spruijt: In many of the industries in which robots are being deployed, high turnover is very common. What this means is that businesses must quickly onboard new employees to continue operations. When onboarding, employees are forced to learn new processes, rules, technologies and more.
Several different vendors are rolling out AMR solutions for companies. This gives businesses valuable options, but also creates problems: It’s difficult to be good at building both hardware and software that can operate autonomously, thereby reducing product quality. It introduces far greater operating complexity, including separate management systems, user interfaces, safety standards, data aggregation, and so on. In this siloed environment, companies and their staff would be forced to go through the pains of learning multiple systems.
We have chosen a platform-based approach which leverages the same central, cloud-based AI software platform, but works with a diverse set of best-in-class OEMs (original equipment manufacturers): OEMs have years, if not decades, of experience in building very specialized machines to accomplish specific tasks. In our opinion, this approach leads to easier fleet management, better data capture and reporting, and lessens the learning process for current and new employees.
This is why we believe developing a unifying platform across robotic solutions is a critical step for removing growing pains and helping companies plan a strategic, long term automation strategy.
GN: What can industry do to conscientiously shepherd the transition while doing right by workers?
Michel Spruijt: Deploying automation and doing right by workers are not two separate actions. In the majority of cases, deploying automation supports your workforce. Robots are a tool workers can use to get their job done more efficiently and effectively, taking monotonous repetitive tasks that can become overbearing or can be unsafe, off their plates to be more effective at the other valuable parts of their job.
GN: What can workers do to prepare for and adapt to this transition?
Michel Spruijt: In our view, robotics should be developed with humans in mind, so that using this helpful technology can be accessible to all. We have made the BrainOS user interface incredibly intuitive so that employees of all technical backgrounds can successfully utilize and benefit from the added help robots provide, allowing them to focus on other tasks that only humans are uniquely qualified to do.
GN: What will surprise people about automation over the next five years?
Michel Spruijt: I think what will surprise people is the amount of value robots can bring to organizations through the data they collect. What we have seen so far from robots is the ability to complete one specific task. Going forward though, robots will be able to complete a multitude of tasks, perhaps the most valuable being the collection of data. For example, what is a cleaning robot today, can become a machine that cleans and collects inventory data, tomorrow. This inventory data can, for example, help retailers understand their stock levels, pricing inaccuracies, and planogram compliance issues, potentially saving retailers a huge amount of money while also helping deliver a better shopping experience to customers. This is what we are working on now and already have deployments and pilots starting. Over the next 5 years, new streams of sensory data will be collected, further transitioning robots from operationally focused machines, to true mobile IoT platforms.