Intelligent automation at the workplace

08 Sep 2016

From robot receptionists to drone waiters, more and more businesses in Asia are turning to intelligent automation.


Whether on the factory floor or in the hospital hall, machines have enabled work processes to become more efficient as they can take on tasks that are repetitive, physically exhausting or dangerous.


In recent years, advancements in artificial intelligence mean that machines can also do jobs which typically required a human element. According to the BBC, robots are already doing the jobs of factory worker, journalist, taxi driver, cocktail waiter and even doctor.


Economists fear that up to 35 percent of jobs will be lost to machines in the next 20 years. Yet others argue that if businesses are well-prepared, technology will create new jobs and make existing jobs more valuable.


The rise of the robots


The "Robot Revolution" has been hailed as the answer to labour shortages in developed Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore where the cost of labour is high due to an aging population.


In Singapore, this ties in with the government’s Smart Nation push to integrate technology into everyday life. With the help of government subsidies and programs, social robots are under trial all over Singapore as pre-school teachers, office receptionists, hotel porters, hospital assistants and most commonly, waiters.


Intelligent automation has helped to plug the service gap in Singapore food and beverage industry, where diners are sometimes turned away from restaurants due to manpower shortages. An increasing number of F&B outlets are beating the labour crunch by turning to automation in the form of indoor drones that deliver food from the kitchen to tables, and robots which not only fry rice, shovel ice-cream, but can also take orders and make menu recommendations.


Restaurant Rong Heng Seafood, which employs two robot waiters, told Singapore’s The Straits Times that the robots have helped ease the workload of existing staff, who can now look after twice as many tables by not having to walk to and from the kitchen as often. The restaurant’s two bots, Lucy and Mary, speak Mandarin and cost approximately US$12,600 each.


Intelligent automation has also helped to increase efficiency in Singapore’s public hospitals, where patients can face long waits.


At KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), whose Emergency Pharmacy serves one of the busiest A&Es in Singapore, a robotic bottle dispensing system (BDS) automatically loads, picks, assembles and labels medication bottles, which are delivered by conveyor belt to a pharmacy staff who does a final safety check before handing the medication to patients. The BDS saves up to 8,760 man-hours a year as these processes used to be done manually, and has slashed the time patients wait to fill their prescriptions by about half during peak hours.


In Japan, service robots can be found serving customers in department stores and supporting dementia patients in nursing homes. A traditional leader in factory robots, Japan has now turned its focus on to service robots, aiming to “spread the use of robotics to every corner of the nation and society,” in Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s words. The government plans to expand the service robot market 20-fold to 1.2 trillion yen (US$10 billion) by 2020.


Japanese factories have moved beyond automated manufacturing processes to using intelligent power assist systems for their workers, such as bionic suits which detect signals from the human wearer’s brain to their muscles and assist movement, reducing physical exertion. Bloomberg News reported that not only do these power assist systems boost productivity, they “attract younger employees by adding a cool touch to dusty, sweaty, factory jobs.”


Elsewhere in the region, efforts in China are also underway to tackle fast-rising labour costs and slowed economic growth through automating processes in the country’s factories.


A government-backed campaign aimed at increasing the productivity and sophistication of China’s manufacturing industries will see more connectivity and intelligence added to manufacturing equipment and processes. According to the International Federation of Robotics, China will account for more than a third of all industrial robots installed worldwide by 2018.


Since 2013, China has already been the world’s largest importer of industrial robots. Guangdong-based sink manufacturer Ying Ao told the Financial Times that it has spent more than US$3 million on robots. Previously, it had to offer high wages as workers would not work in its unpleasant factory environment, but now its nine robots can do the job of 140 full-time employees.


According to local Chinese government statistics, as many as 600 factories in Kunshan have similar plans, while in factory city Dongguan, a total of 505 factories have invested 4.2 billion yuan (US$640 million) in robots, aiming to replace more than 30,000 workers.


Transforming the way we work


Consulting group Accenture forecasts 30 to 40 per cent employee productivity gains in the next three to five years, even in already heavily automated functions.


As old jobs get “automated away”, new jobs and industries are constantly created in response to the new levels of output arising from automation, which also acts as a catalyst for the development of more valuable skills for human workers.


Manufacturer of Apple and Samsung products, Foxconn, which recently made headlines after it culled 60,000 jobs as a result of automating processes at its Kunshan manufacturing plant, told the BBC that using automation to do repetitive work would “enable employees to focus on higher value-added elements in the manufacturing process, such as research and development, process control and quality control”.


At KKH, the automation has enabled staff to dedicate more time to specialized duties such as drug accuracy checks and better communication with patients on the use of the medication prescribed. This has increased both patient and staff satisfaction.


However, achieving greater productivity is more than just about installing robots. Some tasks currently done by humans cannot be easily automated at low cost, such as fine manipulation and visual inspection. The challenge for businesses is to determine which jobs can be automated the most effectively, and where the skills of human workers can be most efficiently allocated.


Proponents of automation argue that it is not a quest to replace humans in the workforce. Rather, the partnership between humans and machines would drive up productivity and improve quality of work, allowing people to develop new skills and focus on creative and cognitive tasks -- what the human mind does best.


Ultimately, machines cannot replace the human mind’s capacity to discover, create, empathise and inspire.


The future: A win-win human-machine partnership


While the rewards of technology and automation are evident, realising their full value takes time and comes at a cost. Employers must follow through on their commitment to invest to upgrade workers’ skills and create an enabling workplace for their employees to achieve more with technology, while employees must be willing to accept technology and learn to use it to their advantage, rather than compete with it. Those who do not will be left behind.