Can new luddites smash robots in anger?

It strikes me how many robot and cobot promoters downplay the risk for human to lose jobs to automation, digitalization and the raise of new generation of robots. The fact that human workers will remain in business seems too forcefully highlighted to be true. Therefore my question: can new luddites smash robots in anger?

According to wikipedia, the Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest, fearing that machines would replace their role in the industry. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luddite

When it comes to promote the new generations of robots and especially those able to work safely in close proximity with humans, and even collaborate (cobots, made of “collaborative” and “robot”), the benefits put to the forefront is to help workers alleviating dangerous or health-hazardous situations. Cobots would take care of lifting and manipulating heavy loads and/or the repeated motions to grasp, move and hold parts, while the human worker would concentrate on value-adding tasks.

For those workers which would be made unnecessary thanks to automation, their future would look good nevertheless, because they would be recycled in higher-value jobs, like industrial engineering, continuous improvement and many other occupations.

It looks to me like painting the future a bit too blue and who can reasonably believe all this wishful thinking?

Knowing that most of the human tasks can be transferred to robots, Artificial Intelligence and automation, or a combination of all, can we believe that all this high-tech in development and the significant investments required will be made only to improve workers’ jobs?

Human workers will remain the weak link in automated processes in many aspects, beginning with variability: variability in availability, mood, health, discipline, focus, speed of execution, performance…

Why would investors refrain to reap all the benefits of the new solutions?

And if some would, as an act of humanity, I believe many would not have much hesitation and once the competitiveness is challenged, I cannot believe that care for humanity would count for much.

So if human workers cannot be kept in their jobs, they have to be “recycled”.

Yet the speed of progress with autonomous systems is such that most unnecessary human actors will be out of occupation before they can convert to a new one.

Besides, who can believe that ALL outperformed workers can be recycled into specialized technicians, industrial engineers, problem solvers and continuous improvers?

Who can believe we would need so many, if need at all?

My assumption is that the robot and automation promoters fear a new luddites uprising who could smash the high-tech in anger for losing their jobs.

But unlike the 19th century workers, the threatened contemporary ones have overall higher education, access to instant information. It can’t be long they understand the risks by their own or by someone else’s analysis.

Therefore, it is necessary to downplay what could happen?

Comments welcome.

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The cobot controversy – Part 1

“The cobot controversy” is the title of a short article published by and on the Hannover Messe (“Hannover Fair”, the industry exhibition) website.

http://www.hannovermesse.de/en/news/the-cobot-controversy.xhtml

The article can be read in English as well as in German (assumed original version). This article proposes a “balanced” view about the impact of the collaborative robots (cobots) on the jobs in industry.

It caught my interest because most often the articles on those subjects, i.e. robots and future of jobs are single-sided.

  • On the one hand promoters of the factory of the future, industry 4.0 and robotics only highlight the alleged benefits of the new technologies.
  • On the other hands, prophets of doom predict nothing else than mass extinction of jobs.

Published by what can be considered the Mecca of Germany’s Industrie 4.0, the showplace of the most recent and finest developments in cyber physical systems, automation and more, it is fair (no pun intended…) to present the flip side of the coin.

Furthermore, some references to studies cited in the article are interesting. For instance the fact that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”. Digging deeper into this one, I read that usually analysts assume that the whole job is taken over by automation or robots when in fact only specific tasks are. This is mainly because the analysts remained on a macro level.

Now, can this invalidate the initial assumption: robots won’t replace humans at work?

When observing any person in its daily work, many of the tasks done are not described in the work instructions neither in the procedures and many tasks are not even part of the job description.

This can have several reasons:

  • people not sticking to the work instructions and taking liberties
  • reacting to unexpected situations that require decision and action on the spot
  • impossibility to describe every possible situation in work instructions and procedures
  • broad guidelines as instructions, relying on human know-how to carry out the tasks
  • etc.

The human workers defenders will argue that humans are irreplaceable when facing an unexpected situation, something that is likely to happen (very) frequently. They may be right, but with regards to old automation constraints and algorithm programming.

Until relatively recently, automation required accurate positioning and low variability for automated machines or robots to operate. Programming was linear and only capable to adjust on programmed variations. With the all the progress in various fields, objects positioning is no longer a hard constraint and systems are increasingly capable to adjust to unexpected situations.

Machines, in the broadest meaning of the word, are also increasingly capable to learn and adapt. Therefore, the assumption of the irreplaceable human is losing its validity as the machines’ abilities improve.

When observing humans work, is it also common to see them take deliberate liberties with the list of tasks, because of their inability to keep focused over time, because they are convinced to know better or because they lack the self-discipline to stick to instructions.

Humans introduce many variations and not always for good reasons, therefore praising the vast variety of tasks the human do must be considered with care. For the same reason, stating that “robots are replacing tasks, not jobs”, based on such observations without a critical discrimination of the necessity and added-value of the human tasks, might be wrong.

Why? When going for automation, the engineers will analyze the process and concentrate on the core activities. They may well ignore many special issues a human will take care of, but also ignore all the unnecessary or deviant activities human will add. More or less, this analysis will discriminate necessary from unnecessary tasks, value-added from waste.

Comments welcome.


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5 things to remember about 5S

I assume readers are aware about 5S. The 5S are a methodology when beginners discover them through a structured way of teaching. They hopefully turn into an approach for organizing the workplace, and eventually a philosophy for those embracing the 5S principles for guiding their personal behaviors.

Read more about Approach, philosophy or methodology

Here are 5 things to remember about 5S:

1 – 5S look easy but aren’t

5S look disappointingly simple. The traditional learning way takes the beginners through a 5-step implementation program, usually one step at a time.
This tutored and hands-on journey makes the 5S look really simple and that’s a good thing. Yet 5S’ difficulty is nothing technical nor about the principles (“all common sense”), but about getting people to think and behave differently. This is about change management.

2 – 5S are too important to be delegated to interns

If you agree with point number 1 and on the importance of 5S as a necessary foundation to build operational excellence, then you cannot delegate the 5S rollout to someone who is not fully part of the organization and not having the required authority and leadership. Considering 5S as a secondary chore and delegating it to an intern is one common management mistake about 5S.

3 – Forget about Return On Investment

5S are a basic Necessary Condition for providing an efficient and safe workplace, and from then on developing operational excellence. As such, 5S are not rolled out in search for ROI. The gains, hence ROI is pretty difficult to evaluate. How to valuate 20 square meters of warehouse freed from clutter or a better looking, clean and stainless workshop?
If the decision to go for 5S is a matter of ROI, this choice is as meaningful as deciding the ROI of brushing teeth or showering is worth it. By the way, 5S are considered “industrial hygiene”.

4 – You’ll be never done with 5S

Even an organization managed to have a full cycle of the 5S completed, it can’t claim it’s done. 5S are simply never-ending. First because it is so easy to slip back to old behaviors, to take it easy on discipline. Second because the conditions change over time and 5S rules and practices have to be adjusted. Newcomers may join and have to embrace 5S as well. They have to be trained, mentored and maybe they’ll bring in new ideas worth implementing.

5 – 5S is not about housekeeping

This is a common misconception about 5S: it’s not about housekeeping, constantly scrubbing and cleaning. 5S is about avoiding to clean and scrub, about getting smart and avoid spilling dirt and creating mess.Even cleaning and scrubbing might be necessary at the beginning, it is advised to find ways to avoid it quick because nobody likes those chores. So 5S is not about housekeeping, 5S are continuous improvement.

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