Automation is the use of computer and electronic-controlled devices to take control of one or more processes, and its goal is to increase reliability and efficiency. Most of the time, however, automation actually replaces human labor.
And there are fears that, in time, more people than ever before will be out of work.
Automation already plays a big part in a many of the manufacturing and assembling plants across the world, with robotic assembly lines doing the work that human beings used to do.
Automation covers a wide range of elements, functions and systems in just about every industry, but particularly in the transportation, manufacturing, utilities and facility operations industries. In addition, more and more countries are using automation for their national defense systems.
Today, automation exists in just about every function in industry, such as procurement, installation, integration, maintenance, and even creeps into sales and marketing.
Automation and the Office
Over the last four decades, information technology has revolutionized office environments, with communications, correspondence, documenting and even filing becoming automated functions. The level of noise, not to mention materials, have dropped with paper documents being transferred to digital storage, and employees rarely using pens, calculators, phone books and more. There are no more map books, Filofaxes and diaries — just about everything has become automated, eliminating the need for most materials except for a cell phone and a computer.
These days, maps, phone numbers, and more, are all available online, at the click of a button. And when we telephone a service or visit a website, more often than not we are talking to robots that have voice recognition programmed into them or chatbots that act as robotic customer services.
Automation and Flexible Working
Technology has also enabled the shift from traditional 9-to-5 office hours to flexible working. With the advent of the internet, cloud computing, smartphones, tablets, and laptops, we can work from wherever we are, whenever we want. This means that many employees can now better manage their-work-home balance, increasing morale.
However, that does lead to a new problem: People find it hard to actually switch off from their work life.
Banks used to be staffed with real people and customers. Today there are fewer physical branches open as more people do their banking online or on the phone, talking mostly to robots. Even if you do venture inside a bank branch, you will find few humans and mostly machines. But the latest ATMs are for more than just taking money out. They also allow you to put money in, and pay your bills. And most people can manage all their banking without the need to speak to a human employee.
According to Professor Henrik Christensen from the Contextual Robotics Institute at the University of California, babies that are born from today will never drive a car. By the time they are old enough, autonomous cars will be the norm. And we are also likely to see home companion and healthcare robots everywhere.
Automation and Manufacturing
Over the last three or four decades, manufacturing has undergone some serious changes. And along with that, there has been a significant decline in employment within manufacturing in advanced economies. In 1996, around 14% of the US workforce was employed in manufacturing. Today it is no more than 8%, which makes for a huge decline in just 20 years.
However, it wouldn’t be fair to say that automation is responsible for all of that decline. Some jobs have been moved to countries where the labor costs are cheaper. According to experts, that rate of decline is not going to slow any time soon. In fact, it is entirely possible that it will just get worse.
While automation is seeing some jobs being lost, it is creating others and, over the next, couple of decades, we can expect to see huge changes in the way we live and work, all thanks to the long overdue rise of automation.
But it won’t all be bad.