Getting ahead in the age of cobotics

An article setting out the SBR vision of cobotics and what it means for businesses, resourcing models and the future of work

By Stefano Bensi, General Manager, Softbank Robotics EMEA

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As we enter this new decade, business leaders across all sectors continue to prioritise digital transformation as a way to create efficiencies, improve customer service, ensure regulatory compliance and drive innovation. Organisations recognise that in order to stay competitive in an increasingly turbulent global economy, they need to embrace new technologies and operational models in order to thrive in the future economy.

The narrative around widescale adoption of automation and AI technologies has largely been one of fear and uncertainty to date, with reports of mass job displacement on the horizon. The widely held view, too often perpetuated by mainstream media, has been that the robots are coming to take our jobs in a strange and often bleak future world. In my opinion, this is why many digital transformation programmes have yet to deliver on their promises, held back by a lack of understanding and buy-in amongst people at the coalface, resistant to change and reluctant to interact with new technologies.

However, there are signs that the tide is turning and we’re seeing a more considered view of automation. Indeed, it is now widely understood that AI will in fact lead to a net increase in jobs over the coming years. Whilst there will of course be some job changes in specific industries and job roles, AI will also create millions of new specialist and highly skilled jobs.

Without doubt, of far greater significance is the impact that automation will bring to the types of work people carry out on a daily basis. McKinsey predicts that whilst less than 5 percent of all occupations can be automated entirely using current technologies, about 60 percent of all occupations have at least 30 percent of constituent activities that could be automated today. So rather than replacing people, automation and robots will in fact work alongside people within a hybrid workforce model, where operations and tasks are resourced according to the relative strengths of both people and technology.

Over the next decade we will see much closer collaboration between humans and machines within the workplace, with robots and automation increasingly assisting with the repetitive and time-consuming tasks which are such a drain on productivity and staff engagement, and workers being freed up to focus on higher value and more fulfilling activities. The benefits are easy to understand – greater efficiencies, higher employee engagement and improved levels of performance and servicing.

Entering The Age of Cobotics

In order to accelerate this shift to a hybrid workforce model, we need to re-frame the introduction of automation, so that it becomes less of a threat to the existing workforce and is instead embraced as a route to interesting and varied work and developing new skills. Across all sectors we need to reassure vast sections of the workforce that robots and AI can enhance their working lives, rather than hindering them. This is where the concept of cobotics has a big role to play.

Cobotics is the collaboration between workers and machines or robots. Cobots are collaborative robots which carry out repetitive or strenuous tasks which would otherwise be performed by a person, but they work alongside that individual or team, not in their place. Cobots are instructed, controlled and managed by workers on the ground and are there to support workers.

Across a whole range of sectors, the introduction of cobots can (and will) dramatically alter the working lives of people in a wide variety of job roles. Whether it is retail, healthcare, hospitality or cleaning, cobots can take away the most laborious and least pleasurable tasks from human workers and enable them to focus their efforts elsewhere, on more rewarding and valuable work. We’re already seeing this happening in a number of sectors where forward-thinking organisations are introducing cobots into their operational models.

Within such a human-cobot workforce, businesses reap the benefits of both machines (in terms of efficiency, consistency and performance in carrying out repetitive tasks), and of human workers, with their capacity for objective thought, creativity and problem solving. And in an ever more challenging labour market, where high quality talent is in such demand in so many industries, it makes sense to have your best (and expensive) people focused on activities which make a real impact.

In The Age of Cobotics, machines assist with the grunt work and people are freed up to make a genuine difference and pursue more fulfilling working lives.

Innovation beyond technology

Too often businesses approach innovation from solely a technological perspective; but equally as important is a willingness to embrace new ideas and adopt new business models. Organisations today need to embed agility and scalability into all areas of their operations, ensuring they have the flexibility to adapt to market dynamics, exploiting new opportunities
and reacting swiftly to new threats.

As organisations introduce cobotics into their operations, they will also seek out more innovative and flexible leasing models, rather than traditional procurement methods, with large capital expenditures and little certainty around long-term life-span and value. With cobotics, we will see innovative business models allowing organisations to access the very latest technologies without major upfront investment; and all servicing and product upgrades included, taking away the hassle and cost of ongoing maintenance. In addition, cobots can collect valuable data which can be translated into meaningful insight to ensure operations are continually optimised and to make faster, smarter decisions.

Indeed, cobotics is as much about a commitment to innovation, smart working and efficient operations, as it is about automation and robots. It requires a major shift in thinking, amongst both business leaders and the workers who are engaging with cobots in the workplace.

This cultural change is important and businesses need to ensure they have the right strategies in place to influence behaviours and mindsets across the organisation to ensure that cobotics is harnessed in a smooth and seamless way. Technology providers have a role to play here, helping business leaders to manage change, and to reassure, educate and upskill people to work effectively and harmoniously alongside cobots.

The Cobotic Difference

Rather than bringing in automation by stealth, in The Age of Cobotics we are seeing organisations making a virtue of their adoption of cobots and the shift towards a hybrid human-cobot workforce model, to attract new talent, particularly amongst younger generations of workers.

The message is that these organisations can offer people more interesting and fulfilling work, with less time spent on mundane and repetitive tasks. Cobotics demonstrates a commitment to employee wellbeing at a time when mental and physical health in the workplace is becoming an ever-more pressing concern for businesses and public health authorities. The World Health Organization estimates that the global economic impact of depression and anxiety is US$1 trillion every year and organisations across all sectors are struggling to address and promote health and wellbeing at work and beyond.

Cobotics removes the strain and stress of certain manual tasks, whilst putting people in the driving seat, making decisions and managing technology, rather than the other way around.

It also gives relatively inexperienced or low-skilled people the opportunity to work alongside cutting-edge technology and to develop specialist skills and knowledge.

However, it isn’t just prospective workers that will be drawn to organisations that are embracing cobotics. Such a commitment to innovation and new ways of working is also hugely appealing to prospective customers, whether they be consumers or individuals. Those businesses that are first to integrate cobotics within their operations over the next few years will create genuine differentiation in the market and attract forward-thinking organisations that are looking to align themselves with future ways of working.

Cobotics represents a smarter, more grown-up approach to business and digital transformation; one that harnesses new technology and approaches to deliver efficiencies and increased performance, but also recognises the limitations of automation and AI, and the ongoing need to create an engaged, healthy and productive workforce to work in collaboration with technology. Get this shift to cobotics right and organiations are setting themselves up to thrive in the future.

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