The world is not moving towards a dystopian future just as yet, but one can’t deny the effect innovations in the robotics field will have on human life, especially when it comes to a waning workforce as a result of increased use of automation technologies.
Experts have already started sounding the warning bells. As per a report published by advisory analyst firm HfS Research in July, the true impact of the emergence of intelligent automation will be felt on the global industry of 15 million IT services and BPO workers, which will see about 1.4 million job losses—a net decrease of 9%—by 2021. In India, the services industry workforce is expected to shrink by 4.8 lakh by 2021, a decline of 14%—HfS Research estimates that the IT services and BPO industry employs about 3.5 million people in the country.
Last year, technology research firm Gartner predicted that one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025. New digital businesses require less labour and machines will be able to make sense of data faster than humans, it noted.
In a country like the UK, the robot revolution is expected to displace almost 35% jobs in the next 20 years and around 30% London-based jobs in the same period, predicts a recent report released by Deloitte—a professional services firm based in New York—in association with the University of Oxford.
Taking giant strides
The predictions have already started to show on the ground. In May, there were reports that Foxconn, which manufactures Apple and Samsung phones, has replaced 60,000 labourers with robots at its factories. As per reports, the total worker strength at the manufacturing giant has gone down from
1.10 lakh to 50,000, marking a huge shift towards automation of routine jobs.
Although Foxconn confirmed to BBC that it is automating many manufacturing tasks associated with its operations by introducing robots, it, however, maintained that the move will not affect long-term job losses. The company has said it will provide skill upgrades to enable its workers to focus on higher-value elements in the manufacturing process, such as R&D, process control and quality control.
This came just days after former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi publicly endorsed the use of robots for routine tasks at the restaurant chain, saying it’s cheaper to invest in a $35,000-robotic arm than to hire an employee with wages of $15 an hour. “…Well, if you can’t get people a reasonable wage, you’re going to get machines to do the work.
It’s just common sense. It’s going to happen whether you like it or not. And the more you push this, the faster it’s going to happen,” Rensi said on Fox Business TV channel in a recent interview.
The India story
Closer home, homegrown IT company Intex recently said it’s now using robot-assisted technology for almost everything at its manufacturing unit in Noida, with the aim to provide the best products to customers. “Earlier, we used to import components in a semi-knocked-down form, but now, we get them in completely-knocked-down form. We assemble everything at our manufacturing unit,” Amitabh Khurana, head of manufacturing at Intex Technologies, was quoted as saying in media reports recently.
Robotic technology and automatic testing machines in Intex labs have helped increase the productivity and quality, as per Khurana. Also, the company now has an automated research and development centre in New Delhi, as well as one in China for physical testing of products.
“We have a machine that tests camera, audio, video and the speaker automatically at one go and is a completely Internet of Things machine,” Khurana added.
After invading the shop floors of automobile-makers and IT hubs, robots are now entering battery plants as well. India’s largest auto battery-maker Exide Industries has reportedly started an ambitious project to produce batteries manufactured fully by robots to eliminate any inconsistency in quality due to human presence on the shop floor.
The first of the project, with technology sourced from East Penn Manufacturing of the US—one of the world’s leading manufacturers of lead-acid, gel-cell and absorbed glass mat batteries—would be implemented at a 25-acre facility at Haldia in Bengal soon, where the company has an existing plant. Exide will be spending R1,400 crore over two years to extend this to its other manufacturing facilities, say reports.
Who’s making it happen?
When e-commerce major Flipkart was looking at improving its processes to handle the strong demand surge during the festive season last year, it found that manual sortation of thousands of packets with hundreds of pin codes in a few hours was leading to costly inefficiencies. Further, it had also partnered with a large number of third-party logistics vendors for last-mile delivery across India. These vendors would charge for each shipment based on manually-approximated packet weight and dimensions, and this meant a potential revenue loss for Flipkart due to lack of accurate data.
It was then that the company turned to robotics firm GreyOrange. After a methodical analysis, GreyOrange designed a solution for Flipkart and implemented its ‘Linear Sorter’ system across the company’s fulfillment and transport centres. The robotics firm installed two double-deck and five single-deck sorters of capacity 6,000 sorts/hour each—and four sorters of capacity 3,000 sorts/hour each—across Flipkart’s eight transport centres and the Hyderabad fulfillment centre.
“We witnessed early success with e-commerce and logistics industries, as they were early adopters of technology. However, there is immense opportunity for industrial automation in India, given that the current level of automation is very low as compared to other markets like the US or China. As not much can be done in the area of transport logistics, the pressure on warehouses to deliver faster at lower costs is increasing manifold,” says Yaduvendra Singh, global head, sales, marketing and solutions group, GreyOrange.
So far, the company, which counts Amazon India, Jabong, Delhivery, GoJavas, Aramex, DTDC and Kerry Logistics—apart from Flipkart—as its clients, has raised $35 million in series A and B funding by global venture capital firms Tiger Global Management, Blume Ventures and some angel investments.
Omnipresent Robotics, another robotics, industrial UAV/drone and video analytics solutions provider based in New Delhi, has a slightly different focus area.
“Robots and drones are most useful in hazardous environments where companies do not want to put valuable employees at risk,” says Aakash Sinha, CEO and co-founder of the company founded in 2010.
“Our primary focus is on providing drone-based solutions—360-degree service solutions with custom-built industrial robots (drones for industrial inspection, river-cleaning robots, drones for defence and emergency response, etc) and intelligent software that powers our robots. We have recently forayed into consumer bots like Speedobotix (an educational robotics kit) that is targeted at children aged eight years and above,” adds Sinha.
A man’s best friend
Allaying fears of robots ‘taking over the world’, Kalpana B, partner and head, robotics and cognitive automation, KPMG India, says, “Any phenomenon towards change always creates some amount of apprehension.
Automation and robotics would bring about the need for upskilling the existing workforce and, therefore, we can expect imminent changes in job profiles over the next two-five years. While traditional titles or roles might vanish, new jobs would be created, as the future generation might not want to have traditional desk jobs. Necessity may further drive innovation and start-ups.”
For more clarity, Kalpana B quotes the example of enterprise resource planning, or ERP, phenomenon of the 1990s. ERP is a business process management software that allows an organisation to use a system of integrated applications to manage the business and automate many back-office functions related to technology, services and human resources.
“When the ERP phenomenon occurred, there were apprehensions that an accountant’s job may perish. While the process of writing on huge manual ledgers did perish, there were different jobs for the same accountants. The need for upskilling of the service industry is now and real, and needs to happen,” she adds.
Agrees Singh of GreyOrange, “We had the same argument when computers were launched and look where that has gotten us,” he says.
“The introduction of computers only changed the way people traditionally did business. It had no negative impact on jobs. Similarly, robotics has helped humans get significantly more productive and take up high-end jobs. Machines may continue to evolve and demonstrate sophisticated artificial intelligence capabilities, but may never match human creativity and intellect,” he says, adding, “In other words, a robot complements, but does not replace a human worker.”