An ew industrial revolution is underway. Robots are set to transform the workplace and change our everyday lives, from the way we clean our homes to how we access education and healthcare.

Since the first industrial robot became operational in a General Motors car plant in 1961, the spread of robots has been slow. They have been used largely in manufacturing, mostly in automotive factories. But recent advances in artificial intelligence, big-data analytics, sensors, cloud computing and mobile technology are unleashing more adaptable and increasingly sophisticated robot technology.

With new capabilities of movement, visual recognition and the use of motion-sensitive technology, robots are able to replicate tasks once left to humans. In the field of logistics, robotics has been a long time coming, but is now being tested in warehouses and sorting centers for picking, loading and packing.

Experts are divided on the effects this new breed of automatons will have on employment. Some argue that robots represent a real threat to millions of jobs, while others say such predictions are just scaremongering.

A 2013 study by Michael Osborne and Carl Benedikt Frey of Oxford University predicted that 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. were “at risk” of being automated within 20 years – and that the implications extended to other developed countries.

The study “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?” examined more than 700 detailed occupation types, noting the types of tasks workers perform and the skills required. By weighting these factors, as well as the engineering obstacles preventing computerization, the researchers assessed the degree to which these occupations might become automated.

Dr. Osborne says: “We identified several key bottlenecks currently preventing occupations being automated. As big data helps to overcome these obstacles, a great number of jobs will be put at risk.”

The paper adds: “Our model predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labor in production occupations, are at risk. More surprisingly, we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades, is highly susceptible to computerization.”

However, other experts point out that new technologies have been changing working patterns for centuries, from the advent of steam to the coming of electricity, and that the increases in productivity unleashed by these advances have boosted economies, creating new avenues for job creation.

Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author of “The Second Machine Age,” argued this point at the World Economic Forum earlier this year. “It is true that robots are taking away some jobs, but at the same time they are creating lots of new jobs,” he said, according to a Huffington Post report. He said the big question was whether sufficient new employment would be created to match the jobs lost to robots.

Labor shortage

It’s quite possible that robots may simply help solve a growing labor shortage in western countries with ageing populations. U.K. employment levels have never been higher, while German unemployment is at a record low. Germany is predicted to need an extra 10 million workers over the next 15 years, according to a study by Boston Consulting Group, and the United States faces a potential employment shortfall of up to 35 million workers over the next 30 years. As the population ages, there are fewer younger workers to support the retired population – and robots offer a golden opportunity to boost productivity.

There is much debate about which types of jobs will be replaced by this industrial transformation. Simple, repetitive tasks can easily be replicated by machines. But the speed and breadth of the robot revolution will ultimately depend on return on investment. With a low-wage workforce in many parts of the world, the economics of automation fail to stack up, but as technology costs fall, the use of robots will increase.

Some predict that “heavy-lifting” jobs such as shifting, moving and carrying will be ripe for automation. But many manual jobs require very specific actions, which makes it harder for machines to replicate them – so plumbers, chefs, electricians and decorators will be safe for some time. Call centers are rapidly being automated, but this is freeing up operators to spend more time on customer service.

In the field of logistics, companies are experimenting with the use of robots for picking items, shifting them around warehouses and packing them. So far progress has been slow, but rapid advances in technology and the falling cost of robotics promise to usher in a new era of automated supply chains.

DHL’s trend report “Robotics in Logistics”, published in March 2016, charts the rise of robots in the logistics industry and points to growing interest in the field. In 2012, Amazon paid $775 million to buy Kiva, a robotics startup with a focus on warehouse logistics. Amazon claims to have 30,000 robots operating in 13 fulfilment centers. Meanwhile, Google has bought eight robotics startups, including one that focuses on automatic trailer unloading using advanced perception.

According to Tom Bonkenburg of Dutch-based supply chain engineering and consultancy firm St. Onge, some 80 percent of logistics warehouses are fully manual in operation, while only 15 percent have some kind of automation and just five percent are highly automated.

Collaborative working

One transformative trend in robotics is collaborative working between robots and humans. In the past, robots were placed in safety cages as they posed a danger of injury to humans. But technological advances mean they are now equipped with sensors, so if a human gets near they stop automatically.

A typical area ripe for automation in a distribution center is co-packing. For instance, a retailer may want a two-for-one offer for a month, with two units combined in one pack. A worker could teach the robot how to pack the items together so the robot handles the repetitive part of the task, supported by a human.

Markus Kueckelhaus, Vice President of Innovation & Trend Research for DHL and one of the trend report’s authors, says: “In the near future the main applications for robots in logistics are for warehousing processes – that’s the environment where we see robots playing a bigger part, because the complexity is smaller than if we go for transport or last-mile processes. Value-added services such as co-packing are ideal scenarios where robots and humans can already work effectively together today.”

Logistics workers will need to get used to working alongside robots and become skilled at teaching them new tasks. As e-commerce booms and demand for labor increases in the logistics field, robots will be there to lend an automated hand. — David Benady

Published: June 2016

Photo: Vincent Fournier/Gallery Stock