The better part of this year has been dominated by worries over the Coronavirus. We have seen, in real-time, how valuable our global supply chains are. We have also witnessed how this critical infrastructure has responded to crushing demands, unmet staffing needs and considerable employee safety concerns. On top of that, the extensive shutdown has substantiated fears about a global, prolonged recession. Pundits and supply chain experts are now pointing to automation as a potential solution to address these challenges. While this may sound appealing to some, the reality is different. Automation isn’t the answer to everything.
Automation a potential solution? No really!
In today’s pandemic infused discussions, it does not come as a surprise that many organizations are looking for means to safeguard their supply chains. Automation and artificial intelligence are certainly options in this context. Automation will prevail where it makes sense. Still caution in unilateral adoption is necessary. Automation does not necessarily make sense everywhere.
Technologically, we are lightyears away from fully automating supply chains end-to-end. The current crisis has not changed the need to balance the human workforce with automation and robotics. Short product lifecycles, too many product variants, inconsistent product and shipping formats as well as sudden peaks will stymie automation. With or without COVID-19.
Where automation may be an option, deployment is more than installing software on a machine. Automation takes time proper analysis and expensive upkeep. Even before organizations shift towards automation, they need to make sure automation and robotics are the right solutions to achieve the desired outcomes. Once the outcomes are clear, companies need to assess the true cost of introducing such capabilities into their environment.
During the assessment stage companies often find insurmountable obstacles that require human assistance. Automation technology and robotics can be costly and time intensive. Additionally, it comes with its own set of unique ramp-up challenges. Yet to address the immediate challenges, businesses may be better off focusing on their human capital. Technology needs to serve human needs.
Automation and human workers – no combat needed
Building a bridge that brings humans and technology even closer makes even more sense because some evidence suggests that automation can generate an increased need for human work. Some fifty years ago when the first automatic bank tellers were introduced in the United States their human peers were skeptical and worried that the machines would eventually take their jobs. Yet some fifty years later the number of human bank tellers had more than doubled. The reason being that the machines had generated leeway for the human bank tellers to focus on other things. In other words: They had relieved the human worker of a superfluous burden.
So rather than concentrating on horror scenarios that are extremely unlikely it may be wiser to change the paradigm. So why not ditch the notion that technology and human workers are combatting each other? Why not work towards technology that serves human needs. After all, technology provides the most benefits when it renders relief rather than an existential threat. Technology can and will provide support to those who are most critical when it comes to mastering the current crises: the human frontline workers.
Apart from being more realistic, this is also more productive.