By Alexey Tabolkin is the CEO and Founder of Eiratech Robotics. Alexey has over 15-year experience in managing high profile R&D and Hi-Tech companies that employed thousands of engineers. 

Much has been written over the past 12 months about the rise of the robot, and which jobs will be replaced.  Alexey Tabolkin ceo of Dublin-based Eiratech Robotics argues that robots will save, rather than take jobs, and that they should be embraced, not feared.

If you have recently ordered something online and had it delivered to your door, it is likely that you are coming into indirect contact with the new world of the robot.  Robots are moving out of the confines of heavy industry and precision engineering, and into the world of logistics and delivery where they are making incredible inroads.  And in the area of logistics, companies like Amazon have made the robotics revolution not just possible, but necessary.

Robot ‘Arms Race’ Brings Down Costs

Amazon is largely credited for triggering the so called robot ‘arms race’ in the logistics and delivery sector.   As an early adopter of robotics in its warehouses, Amazon worked with a company called Kiva to develop a ‘goods to person’ robotics solution which literally sees robots bring the ordered goods to pickers for packing and dispatch.  The solution works so well that Amazon bought the entire company for $775M in 2012, and subsequently announced it would not be renewing supply or service contracts with third party customers of the newly renamed ‘Amazon Robotics’.

This created a vacuum, and soon new companies were rushing to fill it with innovations, all based loosely on the ‘robotics in the warehouse’ template that had proved so successful for Amazon and its erstwhile customers.   This proliferation of the new technology has seen robotics technology reduce in price, and new business models such as ‘Robotics as a Service’ being introduced – consequently, robotics technology is now available to enterprises of all sizes, and no longer just confined to global multinationals like Amazon.

The Need for Shorter Delivery Times

Alongside this, online retail has seen increasing demand for shorter and shorter delivery times from consumers.   Again, leading the way are companies like Amazon.  But while Amazon expanded its network of distribution centres (40% of Americans now live within 20 miles of an Amazon distribution centre), it also targeted warehouse efficiency, particularly the 70% of warehouse workers’ time spent walking, searching for, before retrieving orders.  For this, Amazon turned to its robots, and its warehouse workforce by Christmas 2016 included 45,000 robots, up from 30,000 just one year previously.

For the wider market, the signs are clear: competing with this level efficiency and fast turnaround of orders can now only be achieved through introduction of automation.  The alternative – that of employing more and more warehouse workers – is no longer viable if the same results in efficiency and speed are to be achieved in a commercially competitive environment.   So if these enterprises are to remain viable, and continue to trade and compete – and to employ people – then they simply must consider automation, and robotics should therefore be viewed as their saviour, and embraced.

Eliminating Drudge

For warehouse workers themselves, this means eliminating the drudge involved in this back-breaking work, often involving walking 12 – 15km per shift and usually under the pressure of very demanding ‘pick rate’ targets, and all for minimum wages.  Even at minimum wage levels, these jobs are still unsustainable if the efficiency of automated warehouses is to be matched.   The MHI 2017 Survey puts it very well when it states: “As customer demand for quicker delivery and multi-channel order fulfilment continues to increase, labor within supply chains will need to become exponentially quicker to keep up, and human labor simply doesn’t scale like that.”

Luckily, robotics does, and use of robots will also multiply the more complex tasks that people are needed to perform, so workers will simply be redeployed to creative tasks they are far better suited to performing: management, quality control, engineering, jobs requiring manual dexterity and on the spot decision making, returns, customer service etc., etc.

Creating and Saving Jobs

So for example, last week Amazon announced a new fulfilment centre equipped with robotics technology in Warrington in the UK, creating 1200 new jobs across a range of roles from operations managers and engineers to HR and IT specialists – and this is just one of 4 new Amazon centres to open in the UK in 2017.

With regard to pickers and packers, there is no doubt that targets, outputs and productivity will all increase and improve significantly – by up to six fold in the case of so called ‘goods to person’ automation.  But it is precisely these workers’ jobs which are being saved by robotics and automation, as manually operated warehouses become uncompetitive and economically unviable.

The Need for Automation

For the wider economy, this also has profound significance.  As a developed economy, we continue to demand services which it may be no longer be economically viable to offer, our workforce is ageing, and we live in high cost economies.  The only way many of these services will continue to be offered – and thereby saving the jobs invested elsewhere in the enterprise – is by employing robotics and automation to fulfil roles that it is no longer commercially viable to employ human workers to fulfil.

It is in this context then, robotics and automation should really be seen: as saviours of jobs and enterprise, because with mass adoption already underway, many high labour-density operations are unlikely to survive without them.

Alexey Tabolkin is CEO of Dublin based Eiratech Robotics which develops automation and robotics systems for e-fulfilment, warehouse and distribution centres.

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