Many industries are feeling the skills and labour crunch at the moment, but for those in the blue-collar world – such as manufacturing – the answer could lie in the utilisation of cobots.
There are many Australian industries crying out for talent at the moment. Amongst the hardest hit are the healthcare, hospitality and tourism, trade and services and manufacturing industries, according to SEEK.
On a larger scale, that translates to nearly one third of the Australian business market struggling to secure talent – the majority of which are medium-to-large in size. The Australian Bureau of Statistics cites a lack of applicants (79 per cent) and a lack of adequate skills (59 per cent) as being the two biggest drivers of this desolate talent market.
However, for the manufacturing industry – which contributes approximately 850,000 positions to the Australian job market and six per cent of our GDP – Industry 4.0 offers plenty of opportunities to address both the skills and labour crunch.
“Industry 4.0 is related to the digitisation and transformation of industry through a range of different technological advances,” says Dr Melinda Laundon, Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Australian Cobotics Centre (ACC), an industrial transformation training centre funded by the Australian Research Council
It is synonymous with the concept of ‘advanced manufacturing’ – that is, the introduction of technology such as cloud computing, robotics, automation, machine learning and the Internet of Things to the manufacturing space.
“It fundamentally speaks to the core business of HR in terms of managing what workers are involved in, what they care about, what their skill needs are, and making sure the organisation can continue to sustain and thrive in an environment where all of your competitors are starting to digitise.”
From a skills perspective, HR needs to make sure organisations are evolving, to ensure global competitiveness, she says.
“Some of the transformations we’ve seen in relation to Industry 4.0 are driven by market globalisation, as well as trends such as mass customisation and the use of cyber-physical systems [i.e. semi-autonomous systems]. This changes the skills and capabilities required of not only the workforce in manufacturing but also the managers.”
Part of the solution, she suggests, lies in the adoption of collaborative robotics.
What is a cobot?
The ACC is made up of researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne and the University of Technology Sydney, as well as industry partners.
“The government saw a need to help the Australian manufacturing industry to become more globally competitive by investing in technological and business needs, and putting university and industry together in partnership to work out what their skill needs are for the future,” says Laundon.
“HR can counter the myth that robots take jobs, because we know from the experience of industry and from academic literature that successful technology implementation is more likely to raise overall wages and can lead to an increase in jobs.” – Dr Melinda Laundon, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Australian Cobotics Centre
The ACC is in the business of researching and developing the emerging area of cobotics.
“Collaborative robotics, or cobotics, are robots that are aware of their environment and can safely work in the same workspace as people.”
Traditionally, in the manufacturing space, humans and robots have been kept separate. However, the future of the industry – and that of many others – requires humans and robots to work hand-in-hand to enable higher value and quality work.
“They’ve got certain inbuilt safety features and they’re operated by people which brings a lot of HR implications.”
Watch this fun video from Microsoft for a further breakdown of cobotics (just be warned, the tune will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day).
What challenges can cobotics solve?
The most obvious use of cobots would be in skills supplementation, making existing production processes more efficient, and creating safer work environments for humans.
“For example, they might be able to help with welding at heights,” says Laundon. “Or they may be able to protect people from repetitive strain injuries, or from heavy, awkward lifting.”
The ACC will be unveiling some of its latest research later this week in which it spoke to a range of manufacturing stakeholders including members of Weld Australia – the peak body for welders – who stated that the labour and skills shortage was the greatest challenge for them at the moment.
“They’re having trouble getting workers who have those existing skills to weld as well as the new skills in coping with digitisation and operating robots. So there’s a need for new and higher order skills.”
But Laundon notes another benefit of these robo-colleagues that sits squarely within HR’s remit – diversifying a traditionally homogeneous industry.
“In Australia, the manufacturing industry is mostly male, and it’s quite an ageing workforce,” she says.
“In the past, there have been some physical characteristics required for heavy manual work and that has sometimes excluded women, older workers or people living with a disability from fully participating in manufacturing work.
“There are opportunities for cobots to provide opportunities for new workers and boost productivity in the process, while also managing the longevity of the workforce.”
Getting people over the line
But just because there are a variety of potential benefits, that doesn’t mean adoption of such technologies is a walk in the park.
“To incorporate cobots, organisations need to ensure the workforce has the required skills, knowledge and attitudes. The hiring of new employees and preparing the existing workforce to work with cobots will bring new HR management challenges,” says Laundon.
One such challenge will be overcoming technology reluctance. Part of that comes down to providing employees and leaders with compelling research to allay concerns.
“HR can counter the myth that robots take jobs, because we know from the experience of industry and from academic literature that successful technology implementation is more likely to raise overall wages and can lead to an increase in jobs.
“There’s also been some interesting research coming out of the UK saying that the vast majority of low-skilled workers who do repetitive work usually hold on to their jobs. They benefit from not only higher wages, but also greater skill development.”
The UK research Laundon cites above suggests that the transition behaviours of employees when technology such as cobots or AI are introduced are fairly positive – around 64 per cent of people survive in routine work, 24 per cent switch to other jobs, almost 10 per cent exit routine work via retirement and only a small minority (3.4 per cent) end up unemployed.
“Make sure that worker perceptions aren’t focused on myths about job losses, and are instead focused on the skills development benefits and career benefits to people who are able to work with cobots, or companies that are able to benefit from the implementation of cobots.”