Striking the Balance Between Automation & Workforce Empowerment
Almost every month, we come across a study that talks about automation displacing human workers and causing massive job losses. That being said, the world has had concerns about automation since the first industrial revolution in the early 1900's. It’s time that we shift gears and move away from this endless analysis of ‘job loss of millions’ and ‘displacement,’ and instead focus on a more pertinent topic: that of ‘workforce skilling’ and ‘empowerment.’
Flex recently studied and addressed the social impact of automation across their sites. Here are some of their core findings from their study:
There is no such thing as sudden displacement of human labor by machines. Flex is a large manufacturing company with 200,000 employees across 100 sites in 30 countries. State-of-the-art manufacturing, particularly in electronics, requires extraordinarily lean processes and high efficiency. Therefore, automation has always been an integral part of our operations. Machines that offer better precision and speed perform small, redundant tasks. Now with advancements in robotics and IoT, we move to the next level. We are creating more software-controlled environments, that need higher human-machine interface across the entire supply chain. But this is not an overnight process. It goes beyond substitution of tasks and requires that we identify key points of human intervention, set up a collaborative interface across machines and supply chain, marry the product to legacy infrastructure, architect data collection from machines, and so on.
Understanding cross-skilling and upskilling requirements for this scenario is critical for sustained success in business. Over reliance on automation without planned, appropriate human intervention can lead to expensive mistakes (as admitted by even Tesla’s Elon Musk).
Profitability assumptions around automation without measuring social impact on HR is flawed. Automation evangelists simplify the correlation between productivity and profit; sometimes, they use the words interchangeably. Every proposal around intelligent automation includes a financial model analyzing Return On Invested Capital -- often linking massive substitution of labor with machines. The bottom line, stated by consultants, is something like “imagine the cost savings and profitability as you can replace 100 people with this product.”
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