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The Future of Work Depends on Robots

POSTED 07/21/2021  | By: Tom Galluzzo, CTO

There is a growing labor crisis today in nearly every industry that requires manual labor. A worldwide generational phenomenon, driven by the adoption of technology, has led to a more tech-savvy population and people are less interested in doing manual jobs. As a result, finding consistent reliable labor is a growing challenge. On top of this, right now, there is an exponentially growing need for logistics labor. A great example of this is the current shortage of delivery drivers, which is leading to gas supply chain problems

This issue is convincing businesses to turn to new kinds of automation. A new generation of autonomous robots, really the first generation of thinking moving machines, are entering the workplace. Contrary to popular opinion, these robots aren’t taking jobs; rather, they are addressing a critical labor-supply problem. Now more than ever, robots are able to bridge the labor gap, and increase productivity in ways that don’t depend on adding more human workers.

From this perspective, it looks like this next generation of automation will play a role in a brighter future of work – a future where people can pursue more creative and humanitarian work that offers real opportunities for economic mobility and financial security. This will create more efficient and fulfilling jobs for people of all skill levels. 

The Looming Labor Crisis

Several long-term trends are contributing to the widespread labor shortage in the US and across the globe in industries such as: manufacturing, construction, warehousing, and order fulfillment. Most notably, working-age population growth has ground to a halt with the retirement of baby boomers, which make up a huge part of the manual labor pool. At the same time, a larger percentage of young people are earning degrees or learning technology, so fewer non-college graduates are entering the workforce. 

The introduction of consumer technology into homes over the past 40 years has created a worldwide population of tech-savvy employees. Younger populations are totally comfortable with computers, smartphones, and apps, making them eligible for more employment options beyond simply doing manual labor. They know it too. Lured by financial independence and flexible hours, today’s younger generation of semi-skilled workers are more likely to use the gig economy as a primary source of income. Anyone that can drive and use a smartphone could choose to drive for Uber, rather than doing manual labor or picking products in a warehouse. 

On top of all this, logistics workers are needed more than ever. Online sales driven by the pandemic increased 44.0% in 2020 for US retailers and rose from $598 billion to $861 billion. Warehousing and fulfillment centers have struggled to keep up, and despite truly heroic efforts, delivery delays have become something of the norm rather than the exception. Initially, COVID-19 spiked unemployment rates to 14.4%, but they’re already back down to 6.1% as of April 2021, driven in no small part by the desperate need for manual labor. 

Consider this, most fulfillment work is still done by shopping consumers, but as we buy more and more online, we will inevitably run out of labor to pick, pack and ship our goods. US consumers currently spend about 40 billion hours shopping (mostly for groceries). If we were to move 100% of that online, it would take about 20 million full-time employees to replace all of that work currently done for free. Today, there are only about 7 million people looking for work, the vast majority probably do not want to work in e-commerce fulfillment, so we just don’t have enough people to do all of the work.

Things aren’t going back to the way they were before e-Commerce. Facing these historic labor shortages, warehouses and fulfillment centers, in particular, have little choice than to automate to meet consumer demand.

Filling the Productivity Gap

The disparity between an exponentially growing labor need and a shrinking manual labor pool is creating a widening gap that needs to be addressed. Classically, the logistics industry has relied on increasing labor productivity with software systems such as Warehouse Management Systems (WMS). These systems are able to intelligently guide and optimize labor tasking to increase efficiency, but they are constrained by the capacity of human output. Once the current employees reach their limit, the only way to increase output is to either add more people or add physical automation. 

Autonomous robots have arrived just in time. They have reached a capability level to be able to fill the labor gap, especially for logistics automation. These robots offer a new kind of intelligence and flexibility that doesn’t require as much hard infrastructure as classic automation machinery. For instance, a new kind of robot called Collaborative robots, are able to work alongside people within the same human-friendly environment. This flexible, no-infrastructure, automation costs much less than classic automation, and is much easier to deploy. Collaborative robots are used now as force multipliers. One person working with a handful of robots, can be as productive as two or more people doing the same job. 

These changes are now possible because collaborative and autonomous robots are much more intelligent than the robotic machines of the past. These new robots are able to see, feel and reason about the environment in which they are deployed. Technologies such as Lidar, Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) and 3D Vision, allow autonomous robots to perceive their surroundings, so they can find their own way through a facility, or dynamically plan their way around obstacles or people in the environment. Today’s autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are far more intelligent than previous Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) which required guidewires to be installed into concrete floors and were very costly to reconfigure. 

The current workforce needs to be empowered and trained to work with these new autonomous robots. Rather than replacing humans, today’s AMRs and collaborative robots are just tools that will help industries increase productivity, and also create safer and more engaging work environments. 

Autonomous Robots are a New Kind of Tool

The earliest known human tools date back nearly 3 millions years ago. We can trace the history of humankind from hunter-gatherers to the present day through the evolution of our tools. Our first tools were simple manual tools (hammers, axes, grinding stones, etc.). These tools augmented our physical abilities but still required people to supply both the energy and intelligence to use the tool.  

The second major paradigm shift of tools came with the industrial revolution when the energy was no longer supplied by a person but by hydraulic power, steam, and combustion. The fundamental shift was that the tools used energy from a non-human (or animal) source. This allowed us to make powered tools that unlocked tremendous production and resulted in the explosion of the population. These tools allowed us to make the world of cities, skyscrapers, planes and cars that we live in today. 

We’ve arrived now at the third major evolution of human tools, where both energy and the intelligence are supplied by the tools themselves. We call these tools, autonomous robots. Powered by artificial intelligence, today’s robots can complete complex, useful tasks and empower people to move away from manual labor towards more creative tasks.  

These robots will not require the detailed attention, planning and brain power that tools of the past have needed from manual labor. Instead, they will increase productivity without straining the labor force, and work collaboratively with people on tasks together. They will free up people to focus on the higher-level reasoning tasks, tasks that are more engaging and valuable for business. 

The Future of Work

The general workforce will adapt to autonomous robots very quickly. These robots are provided with user-friendly software apps that allow people to intuitively understand how to use them. The tech-savvy workforce will find using robots is as easy as playing a video game on their cell phone. Some robots and operations that are more sophisticated will require some specialized training, but generally anyone with a middle school education will be able to use them. 

As more and more of these robotic systems become available, some of the manual jobs of today will morph into a new generation of automation supervisor jobs. That might sound exciting or even scary, but this change won’t happen overnight. Robotics companies can take 5-10 years to fully commercialize and scale a new application. People can adjust and learn much faster than that. In the same amount of time, a person can easily train for a new skilled task, or even earn a college degree (or two) of their liking.

What can we do with the spoils from the productivity gains from employing these autonomous robots? We will reinvest in people, creating more opportunities to do more creative, more economical, and higher-level jobs. We derive our greatest satisfaction and happiness when we are able to not only pursue safe, rewarding work, but also spend more of our precious time nurturing our families and contributing to our communities. 

The future of work ought to be truly less work.