The quest for improved productivity and efficiency in a highly competitive world has landed many enterprises at the altar of automation. A global survey by the Grant Thornton International Business Report reveals about 56% of firms are either automating processes or plan to do so over the next 12 months.
However, businesses caught up in the hype of emerging technologies seldom realize that for all the benefits of automation, it is a double-edged sword, which has the potential to inflict serious damage to the vitality of the enterprise.
Automation Improves Accuracy and Speed with Reduced Costs
Automation brings to the table a load of benefits, and among the most obvious and direct benefits are improved accuracy and speed, with reduced costs.
Manual processing of tasks is prone to errors, regardless of how dedicated the person entering the data, and how rigorous the cross-checks. Moreover, manual updating of records, data entry, or process is both time-consuming and resource intensive. What takes days of painstaking effort may be executed in a matter of seconds, by leveraging automated technologies.
Likewise, automated operations, with synchronized operations, and turning switches on and off at the right time, improves efficiency, eliminating wastage.Automated robots work 24×7 at factories, without taking a break, and automated agricultural operations increase crop yield, improving productivity and Returns on capital investment manifold.
Automation also brings in consistency to processes, and increase predictability. With automated system and processes, the outcome both in terms of time and results may be predicted with a high level of accuracy.
Automation enables implementing the seven lean principles of eliminating overproduction, reducing waiting, prompt transportation, avoiding unnecessary processing, eliminating unnecessary inventory, doing away with excess motion, and eradicating defects, with gusto.
Automation Improves Safety
Automation eliminates the risks associated with several hazardous jobs, from handling molten lead to operating shredders, and preempts employees from being infected with ergonomically related disorders through monotonous data entry, injuries due to lifting heavy weights, and so on.
Automation Offers Macro Level Benefits
Automation removes the kinks in the production and operations process, leading to a high level of efficiency and better products. At a macro level, such improved efficiency leads to reduced costs and lower prices which boost demand, both factors improving the now all-sacrosanct bottom-line.
A spin-off benefit is, gains to the environment. The highly efficient operation of heating and cooling systems, brought on by automation, reduce energy. Likewise, automated robots used in mining reduce waste and conserve the environment.
However, often overlooked are indirect benefits of automation, which may be just as profound. Automation spares employees from drudgery and allows them to focus on meaningful tasks. Such work enrichment plays no small part in giving employees a psychological boost and can contribute to employee retention in a big way.
Automation and the Job Loss Quandary
For all the benefits, automation poses certain challenges as well.
One of the biggest benefits and a major reason why companies opt for automation is to reduce their wage bills, which often constitutes a sizable chunk of their operations expenses, to the point of making operations unviable. In fact, it is the wage bill that sounded the death knell of many industries in the US and other developing economies, shifting business to China and other developing countries. Automation is widely seen as an effective tool for competitive advantage, to overcome the challenge posed by low-wage economies.
Automation does lead to a reduction in workforce and reduced wage bills. About 43% of businesses expect automation to lead to job losses. About one in every three companies in the manufacturing, technology, clean tech, and food & beverages sectors expect automation to replace at least 5% of their workforce.
However, enterprises salivating on the prospects of a substantial reduction in their wages bill, as automation takes over manual tasks, may have to hold on to their celebrations. Automation takes away manual tasks, but brings in additional complications, such as the need to monitor and maintain the automated system, with adherence to Quality Assurance (QA) process. In essence, it may replace several low-end jobs with a few high-end jobs. Only large enterprises can be assured of a reduced wage bill. For small and medium enterprises, automation reducing their wage bills depends on the scale and nature of operations, and in the worst-case scenario, automation may actually end up inflating the wages bill!
Automation induced job losses can cause macro-level disruptions as well. In Stephen Hawking’s words, automation can “decimate the middle-class jobs” and displace the working class. Apart from the remaining employees being psychologically unmotivated, such a trend can result in the enterprises finding it difficult to get talent, and having to spend more resources and effort than necessary of its human resource and strafing functions.
Automation May End up Being Costlier!
From a financial perspective, deploying automated systems requires significant capital investment. A situation may well arise when the cost to implement and maintain the automated systems exceeds the manual costs, making automation financially non-viable. There are also unpredictable costs related to maintenance, and repair, and also predictable but indirect costs related to supervision and training that make automation financially dangerous for an enterprise.
Also, automation depends on having a highly matured technology infrastructure as its backbone. Without reliable ultra-fast backbone and equally dedicated supply of energy, automation will fall flat on its face and become counter-productive. Many companies assume this as given, when the reality may be different, or at least much costlier than anticipated, even in first world economies.
Automation is Not Yet Compatible with Customization
A more significant challenge is the loss of versatility or flexibility. No machinery is as flexible as the human body, and no artificial intelligence can supplant the human brain. An employee can perform a flexible variety of tasks, whereas a machine is limited to what it has been programmed to do. Automation basically entails repeating the same process over and over again and requires standardization. One off customizations, to cater to any special situations or exigencies, or even approaching each customer in a special way, is an anathema to process or operational automation.
The latest developments in 3D printing may provide a breakthrough in applying automation in a customized way, but it is still early days, and there is a long way to go before viable models emerge and mature.
Unless automation is implemented without a thorough understanding of the business process, or customer preferences, it can make things pretty annoying for the customer. Consider the case of an automated customer service helpline, where the customer has to spend minutes selecting one option after another, and in the end, be cut off because he made a wrong choice somewhere and now cannot find the option he wants.
Also, automation works well in a perfect world, but in a practical world, where there may be a need for compromises, automated systems may fall flat on its face. For instance, a strike or a hold up may disrupt the supply chain, throwing the entire synchronized system in disarray.
Each wave of automation has come with fresh benefits. The first wave of automation, heralded by the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and made production robust. The second wave of automation in the 20th century boosted production capabilities and speeded up things. The latest wave of digitally inspired automation, powered by IoT and related technologies, promises intelligent insights which have the capability to overcome, almost all these existing drawbacks or challenges.
The trick is to get the implementation right. It requires effective teamwork, bringing together all stakeholders. A partner who knows his trade is essential to develop cutting edge and seamless solutions that leverage the benefits of automation and customize it for the enterprise.
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