Robots delivering room service in hotels, carrying lab samples down hospital hallways or scanning inventory on retail shelves aren't common sights today. But high demand for workers during an ongoing—and probably long-term—labor shortage is prompting more companies to consider using mobile robots for these types of work.
"With the crisis of the pandemic and the labor shortages, the C-suite is asking, 'Can robots do these jobs?' " says Vince Martinelli, former vice president of marketing at RightHand Robotics, which makes autonomous piece-picking robots for warehouses. He now advises startups in the robotics industry.
As robots enter the workforce in greater numbers, they will undoubtedly impact human employment. Whether that impact is negative or positive could depend on how the machines are deployed. Some fear that humans will be replaced, while others see opportunities for employees to advance into more satisfying jobs. However, virtually everyone agrees that adopting these robots will require a re-evaluation of work processes and a new strategy for humans and machines to work together.
The Robots Are Coming—for Part of Your Job
Robots have done physical work for decades, mostly in manufacturing, where stationary robotic arms have normally performed single, straightforward tasks such as welding and painting. These machines were bolted to the floor and usually operated within cages, so there was little interaction with humans. Mobile robots gained wider attention in 2012 when Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a maker of autonomous mobile robots, for $775 million for use in its e-commerce warehouses.
Today, warehouses are the biggest market for mobile robotics, with well over half of worldwide mobile robot shipments in 2022 going to that market, according to ABI Research, a technology research and consulting company. But other mobile robotics markets that are small today, including retail, restaurants, hospitality and delivery, are expected to grow quickly. ABI Research predicts total worldwide shipments will exceed 3 million units by 2030, up from around 423,000 units in 2022, with warehousing making up only about a third of that total.
With historic low unemployment in the U.S., many service industries have lacked sufficient staffing to meet a rebound in demand for goods and services as the pandemic has eased. Dwight Klappich, research vice president and fellow at research and advisory firm Gartner, expects labor shortages to persist because the U.S. and other established economies now have negative population growth. Barring more liberal immigration policies, "we will need robots in order to continue growing our economies," Klappich predicts. "We are not going to have enough people."
Nevertheless, some human jobs are bound to be eliminated by robots, says Alexander Kowalski, assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations. But he predicts robots will likely have a bigger impact on job quality than on quantity.
"It's quite possible to use robots to make work better, both for the business and for the employees," Kowalski says, "but we need to be aware of the promises and the challenges that employees will encounter when they have to work with machines."
For business leaders, that means thinking through what legal issues might arise. When deploying robots in a workplace, employers should be mindful of the physical safety of human beings, says Robert Quackenboss, a partner at law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP and leader of its Labor and Employment Emerging Technology Practice Group.
Leaders also need to pay attention to any union or collective bargaining agreements, as some may have specific provisions applying to automation. In addition, Quackenboss notes that the same anti-discrimination laws that apply to humans could also affect the deployment of robots. "If there is a position open for a person to work with a robot, for example, is that position accessible to persons with disabilities?" he asks.
Some robotics products designed for collaboration with humans might use biometrics—human characteristics such as fingerprints, retinal scans, and voice and facial recognition. Employers need to make sure they comply with a number of laws, many at the state level, that specifically cover the collection and use of such biometric data, Quackenboss says.
The introduction of robots can "deskill" a job, leaving workers with little chance for career enrichment or advancement, experts say. Employers should pay more attention to this phenomenon and come up with ways to address it, says Matt Beane, assistant professor in the Technology Management Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Automation can save time and money while increasing efficiency, but business leaders typically pay the most attention to the financial benefits. "Automation can get you profit right away," Beane says. "In principle, that's a good thing— your company is more valuable. But is there a way to do that that minimizes collateral damage to folks in frontline jobs or turns it into opportunity for them?"
Beane notes there are several ways to create opportunity. One might be to ask automation and robotics vendors to help upskill or reskill employees. Another might be to learn from watching what employees are doing.
As parts of jobs are automated, innovative workers often turn to what Beane calls "shadow learning," or learning new skills on their own. However, most company leaders don't see it. "In every company, in some isolated pocket, somebody has figured out how to make their job better while they are working in a highly automated process," Beane says. If managers paid more attention, they might identify such employees.
Beane tells the story of a warehouse worker who taught herself how to fix a box-label printer when it jammed. "She was [an] expert at taking it apart, unjamming it and putting it back together," he says. That not only made her job more interesting, but it also helped her employer by saving time and eliminating the need to call IT.
Employers should try to identify and learn from such workers, Beane says. In warehouses and factories, that could mean just walking around and talking with frontline workers more frequently.
"This woman was innovating and building a new skill, but no one was noticing," Beane says. "The supervisor in that building had no idea." —T.H.
How a Robot Could Change Your Job
When employers automate, the entire work process usually changes, says Matt Beane, assistant professor in the Technology Management Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "The way to automate something successfully is to reconfigure the work so that a simple robot can handle it," he explains.
Industrial engineers are trained to break work down so it requires fewer skilled touches. Thus, certain jobs, especially entry-level, can become "deskilled, meaning the job itself requires less skill over time," Beane says. "Those jobs become demeaning and monotonous. The employees are less challenged to develop more complicated skills that could advance their careers and raise their earning potential."
Careful planning by workforce leaders could prevent that situation, Beane says. His current research focuses on how companies can minimize deskilling and instead help employees learn new skills. "They can make it a part of their culture, for example, that every time they invest in automation, they also have a plan to upskill their human capital," he explains.
But the changes that come with robotics could also open up new technical opportunities for employees. As robots proliferate, employees who have experience working with certain types of robots may have an edge.
"I think in a few years, it's going to be very common for people to put on their resumes their experience with specific types of robots, including programming, operation and other specialized skills," Quackenboss says.
In fact, robots could become more modular and easier to program, says Christian Souche of Accenture, an IT consulting company. He compares the evolution of robotics to the evolution of business software applications. Today, nontechnical business users can build their own programs using low-code or no-code software.
"We're seeing the same thing happening in robots," Souche says. "Multiple layers of abstraction are being created to allow people with no robotics backgrounds to develop robotics applications and services."
As different kinds of robots are deployed in various industries, a new type of technical manager will be needed, says Gartner's Klappich. "We think that by the end of this decade, a majority of mid- to large-sized companies will have a population of heterogeneous robots—lots of different robots doing different things—and they will need to create an organization to manage that," he says.
That means not only overseeing the robots, but also managing how they connect to other systems. A hospital may have a robotic surgical arm in the operating room, mobile robots ferrying blood and tissue samples to the lab, and rehab robots helping patients with physical therapy.
"But who looks at how that surgical robot integrates with other systems?" Klappich asks. How is patient data handled? How are systems and data kept secure? Those are among the many questions that must be answered. "I often talk about the rise of the chief robotics officer," who oversees a group of people who understand and govern how robots connect to an organization's overall technical systems. "That could be a career path for young people."
Not all robots use artificial intelligence (AI), such as those long used in manufacturing to complete repetitive tasks. However, more AI-based robots are entering the workplace as this field continues to grow. Examples include:
Tam Harbert is a freelance technology and business reporter based in the Washington, D.C., area.
SHRM provides resources and information to help leaders manage new technology and the workplace.
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