During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century a movement in Britain called the luddites grew. This group of working class people opposed progress in the manufacturing arena – in this case they destroyed new weaving machines, as they feared their jobs were in the firing line.
Over the years nothing much has changed, and as we enter the first few decades of the 21st century, some within the manufacturing sector are seeing that automation and robotics are taking some of the more menial manual labouring jobs that were once the purview of the working class.
However, if you talk to people in the automation arena, the introduction of robotics not only saves time and money – which is part of the reason manufacturers find these products appealing – but it is an opportunity for those with a limited skills base to up their knowledge and learn new areas of expertise.
One company in this space that has seen a few changes over the past decade is Bosch. General manager for Bosch Manufacturing Solutions, Andrew Bartlett, is a person who sees the positive side of a new era in robotics and automation – not just because he works in the arena.
“With robotics and automation you are taking away the mundane and allowing people to work in higher level activities,” he said. “To keep businesses growing – which is the overall aim of a business to drive productivity and growth – you can move people out of the mundane activities and use robotics. This is because these systems are more reliable in terms of quality, safety and operator interaction. It allows people to move up the food chain; to become more data management and process improvement focussed and control their own destiny, or move to collaborative approaches with regard to automation as opposed to just rote work.”
But are people being trained in the new way of doing things or are they being thrown on the scrap heap?
“We do see ongoing retraining happening within Bosch,” said Bartlett. “Despite the level of automation – which is very high – we continue to bring in new infrastructure and people and grow the area.”
Bosch Manufacturing Solutions national sales manager, Peter Hook, gives a more recent example of where technophobes got it wrong with regard to advancements in the technology space.
“The parable that we often see relates to advent of the computer, when everybody said all the typists would lose their jobs,” he said. “But nobody anticipates that there is a multi-trillion-dollar software industry that is out there now and there are still typists. The challenge with fearing technology is that you revert back to alarmist views. However, generally speaking technology developments end up creating opportunities that we have never thought of.
“I thought the purpose of civil society was to push people up the value chain in terms of employment. From moving away from the mundane, repetitive and harmful, to much more collaborative and creative and socially sensible jobs.”
The problem is though, that surely some people like their rote-type jobs. They don’t have to be Einstein to carry out a task that gives them a living wage and doesn’t test the brain cells too much. Thing is, said Hook, people would be surprised – with a little bit of training – how easy robotics are to install and use.
“Ten years ago, outside of the automotive industry, there was limited uptake in robotics,” said Hook. “Over the past decade it has become more mainstream. People who typically would not have looked at it before are now looking at automation and robotics. That goes to some of the misconceptions that are out there. People think that robotics are hard to install. A few years ago, there was a handful of people that knew how to do it. Today, there are many different people and companies that integrate robotics and automation systems. What’s rare out there is being able to understand the process and to hold their hand and be able to take them through product development all the way through to full production line.”
Bartlett goes as far as saying that robotics and automation have revitalised not only the industry but job opportunities, too.
“The general environment around manufacturing, particularly in the past two years show things are growing,” he said. “There is also an attitudinal change, too. We see an influx of people who are much more automation savvy. Who know how to actually bring it in from their previous days in automotive after transitioning into other industries. We see more people coming through talking the right language, which is enabling their businesses to bring that kind of knowledge in-house.”
Both men also see a couple of other silver linings in this space. One is that they are seeing some skeptics who are no longer intimidated by the technology. The other is that some manufacturers are returning home after a foray into the cheaper, overseas markets.
“There’s an awareness of it now and a need for robotics and automation gear in the manufacturing process,” said Hook. “It has almost gone from a mystery to a necessity. We’ve got customers that have not installed any automation – any equipment – since the 1960s and they are now looking at putting in full robotics and automation systems so that they can keep their manufacturing in Australia.
“Which brings me to another point. We’re also talking to people that have gone through the outsourcing, low-cost manufacturing parts of the world in Asia and are now saying we are wanting to manufacture back in Australia due to quality issues. And they accept that the only way we can do that is automate. We are talking to three or four companies that are interested in bringing their manufacturing back onshore after being in offshore sites. Some manufacturers have to go through the process of manufacturing overseas to see what it is like. However, ‘low-cost’ manufacturing overseas is not always low cost. There are a whole lot of overheads to do and lack of control. The people feel they want manufacturing back home where they can control what it going on.”