A discussion and response to Are the Robots Taking Over?
By Stephanie Crets | DigitalCommerce 360 | January 31, 2019


The robot revolution is here, and workers in every industry are fearful of losing their jobs to machines. But are robots really taking over? This question was asked recently in an article from Digital Commerce 360 with a focus on the e-commerce industry. 

Robot Help Wanted

The tremendous growth in e-commerce, fueled by consumer demand, is driving retailers to explore automation for solutions that fulfill more orders, more efficiently, and more quickly. While robotic systems can be expensive, many e-commerce companies that use robotics in their warehouses believe the benefits outweigh the hefty price tag. Robots can help increase productivity in distribution and fulfillment centers by automating mundane, repetitive tasks, freeing up human workers to focus on more advanced tasks. The concern, however, is that robots are becoming so advanced that they will soon take over these extra tasks, too.  

Not so, says Ragan Dickens, director of corporate communications for Walmart. “We view these machines as an assistant to the associate,” he says. “The machines enable associates to complete the other tasks within their assigned roles while the machines complete the mundane, repeatable task.”

A Warehouse Automation Robot in Action - Are Robots Taking Over?

Automating Tasks, Not Jobs

“We are a long way away from robots replacing humans,” says John Santagate, research director of service robotics at research organization IDC. “Certainly, robots will take on some tasks and in some instances take over certain jobs. However, what will be more prevalent will be the re-definition of job descriptions and requirements. Robots are tools designed to automate certain tasks, but they are not designed to automate jobs.”

Robots are tools designed to automate tasks, not jobs: This distinction is fundamental to understanding automation in this robot revolution. Despite what science fiction portrays in books and film and the “miracle advances in technology” reported in the news media, robots are pretty stupid. They don’t have the critical and creative thinking skills humans do and they won’t for a long time, if ever. So, yes, some tasks may be automated, and that is good, because it frees people to engage their truly human skills in their current jobs and the new jobs of the future.

Human Help Wanted

Another pressing concern fueling the adoption of automation is the existing labor shortage. The gap between available warehouse jobs and applicants is a challenge now, but it is expected to widen much further as baby boomers retire in droves and the tight job market makes it harder to attract the tech-savvy younger generations who are not interested in mundane, physically exhausting jobs. 

The labor shortage puts pressure on companies to mitigate employee attrition. Justin Ha, director of solutions design for DHL Supply Chain credits robotics for reducing the company’s turnover rate, noting “When we use these tools, it puts less stress on our workers than working on conventional manual operations.”

Amazon’s Dickens concurs, “When you invest in technologies that support employees, it makes their jobs better and it increases efficiencies throughout the fulfillment process.” 

Rather than replacing the human workforce with robots, this new automation allows for the adaptation of processes to allow the human worker to focus on higher-level tasks. Someone has to program the automated machines, and who better to do so than the individual who has done the job? 

Robots Stupid, People Smart

Robots won’t automate all tasks, and people will still need to tell the stupid robots what to do. Most employers will still rely heavily on people in the future. After all, humans are needed to teach the machines the best possible way to do the work. We still need the human touch, the attention to detail, the experience, knowledge, and foresight, that only a human can contribute. 

Yes, the robot revolution is here, and it’s creating a new industrial revolution where people will still play the most important role. Automation does not mean the loss of jobs for the human workforce, but rather an improvement of job opportunities. As the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) points out in Work in the Automation Age: Sustainable Careers Today and Into the Future, “While robots don’t cause net job losses, however, they do change the type of work and the skills required, driving new jobs and shifting existing jobs toward higher-value tasks. This distinction between jobs and tasks is critical.” 

A warehouse utilizing robotics for supply chain automation.

The Changing Nature of Work 

The nature of work has been changing hand-in-hand with labor automation for hundreds of years—this is not new with the dawning of autonomous robots. Before the industrial revolution, people were required to use their own energy to complete tasks. Industrialization marked a shift to powered, special-purpose machinery, factories and mass production.

Many people today work in jobs and fields that are a direct result of increased automation. It is expected that up to 65% of kids in grade school today will work in jobs that currently do not exist.  While it is true that robotics will supplement and ease the need for manual labor, it will never replace it. In fact, machines and algorithms will create 58 million net new jobs by 2022. 

The jobs, however, will be different, requiring different skill sets, and workers know this. Eighty-seven percent of workers believe that it will be essential to get training and develop new skills to keep up with changes in the workforce. So, while businesses want to be seen as being innovative and on the cutting edge of technology and trends in their industry, they need to be proactive in educating current employees and stakeholders about the benefits of the technology. 

Additionally, businesses need to understand the cultural impacts of adding automation, and realize that cultural change takes time. It is essential to train and educate the workforce, hire new employees with the right skill sets to work with the robots, and integrate new people into the culture of automation. 

As demand for more efficiency and productivity in the logistics industry continues, and as the labor market shortage persists, companies that want to stay competitive must factor robotics and automation into their growth. Furthermore, when automation is properly acclimated into an organization’s culture, businesses can grow while engaging their employees with higher-level tasks and quality of work life — a win-win scenario for employers and employees.

Are robots taking over? No, not by a long shot. Not now and not in the foreseeable future. But robots are playing an increasingly indispensable role in the supply chain to keep companies competitive, growing, and hiring.