Leadership & talent

Automation in the manufacturing sector: helping workers ride the change

15 May 2017 by Malminderjit Singh

Manufacturing companies that are looking to automate may find that one of the biggest challenges they face comes from within. Workers often resist such change, fearing that they will lose their jobs to technology.

Industry leaders discussed how companies could use automation to strengthen the workforce during a panel discussion titled Addressing the Challenges in Going the Automation Way at the recently concluded Smart Manufacturing Asia 2017 conference in Singapore.

Automation brings major productivity boost

Despite concerns over the costs or challenges around a lack of the requisite know-how, companies cannot afford to ignore automation because of productivity gains.

According to McKinsey & Company, manufacturing companies can see a 10-20 percent increase in productivity when they migrate from a lean assembly line to a digitised lean assembly line, which refers to the use of some new sensors and interfaces as well as basic analytics. However, if they integrate an Industry 4.0 line into their factories, using modules such as collaborative robots and autonomous guided vehicles, their productivity rates are expected to soar by a massive 300 percent.

Recent examples have shown that such productivity increase projections are more than an estimate. It has been reported that Chevron Oronite will save 30,000 man-hours every year by using a wireless plant network with mobile tracking devices for its workers. Feinmetall’s manufacturing plant  in Singapore also recorded a 10 percent increase in productivity last year through automation.

Employees fear the implications of automation on jobs

However, workers worry that such productivity increases could result in their redundancy.

Professor David Butler, strategic development and collaboration director at A*STAR’s Advanced Remanufacturing & Technology Centre, pointed out that a 20 percent increase in productivity due to automation could have significant implications given that Singapore’s labour productivity growth has been flat in recent years.

“This means that a 20 percent increase in productivity could lead to a (correspondingly) huge increase in output or a similar decrease in labour,” he explained.

Industry leaders here have also found that workers resist automation.

Michael Leong, CEO of SESTO Robotics, observed that employees fight the move. “They understand it (the adoption of robotics) and know that it is going to elevate them to a different job scope, but they resist the change and don’t want to learn,” he said.

Leong added that it takes time to change the mindsets of employees who are expected to work with machines as colleagues. His company has, in fact, installed cameras on ‘cobots’ (collaborative robots) to monitor the attitudes and reactions of employees, who are either educated or penalised for not cooperating with the machines.

“This is a stop-gap measure that we employed until they accepted working with the cobots,” he explained, adding that workers have taken four to six months to adjust to this transformation.

Markus Bodlos, deputy head of automation & robotics at Anton Paar, added that a study his company has done with an Austrian university revealed that even factors such as speed and colour influenced workers’ acceptance of the cobots. For instance, workers were threatened by robots that were faster in them in doing certain tasks, like solving puzzles.

Automation can considerably benefit workers

With a global survey by PwC showing that 52 percent of CEOs are exploring the advantages of humans and robots working together, employees should be made aware of the upside of such collaborative opportunities. There is further evidence that the positive impact on productivity need not translate to job cuts.

At SATS’ new eCommerce AirHub, the Singapore-based gateway services and food solutions provider has seen its mailbag processing capacity increase by more than three-fold and processing time cut by half due to its automation efforts. The initiative also allowed SATS to upskill its workers, with the introduction of an eHub specialist role. Here, three roles – forklift driver, cargo handler and cargo coordinator – are now merged into a new role, which will see employees get up to a 10 percent increase in salary.

Over the last three years, Panasonic’s use of cobots in its Singapore manufacturing operations has also led to higher skills and productivity for its workers. As a result, the median salary of its local staff increased by 35 percent.

Moreover, automation has its limits and may not be able to replace jobs fully. As Diaan-Yi Lin, managing partner of McKinsey Singapore noted, only 43 percent of the tasks in workplaces here can be automated by adapting current technology.

How companies can tackle employee resistance

Companies should explore how employee productivity and expertise can be improved rather than diluted by a greater use of machines. Framing the automation narrative in these terms can ease worker resistance and make them more accepting of collaborating with machines.

While many believe that automation will replace humans at work, it is more likely that employees will actually benefit from the productivity gains, salary increases and job creation. However, how this plays out depends on how companies navigate this transformative process.

In a Harvard Business Review article, enterprises are urged to look at automation as a way to create more value rather than as a subtractive force that takes away jobs. Companies should explore how employee productivity and expertise can be improved rather than diluted by a greater use of machines. By framing the automation narrative in these terms, companies can ease worker resistance and make them more accepting of collaborating with machines.  

Employers are also advised to communicate the changes to workers in advance to ensure a smooth transition. Explaining the entire cycle of intended automation will clearly demonstrate to workers how their jobs will be different. This will help reduce anxiety, build trust and allow them to grasp and internalise changes. Moreover, by starting the process early, companies will be able to accurately assess skills gaps within their workforce.

The level of skill proficiency among workers is another factor in how automation will affect jobs and how successfully a company can integrate automation. Automation will not only require employees to be trained in new skills to handle new technologies, but also upskilled to take on more complex tasks as machines handle simpler ones. 

In this new era of automation and Industry 4.0, the skill sets needed are broader than before, pointed out Butler. These include analytical and decision-making abilities. Specific skills such as robotics and data analytics will also be in demand. With universities producing graduates who are generalists, he advised that there is potential to address the skill gap in Singapore. 

To that end, he revealed that several stakeholders here such as SPRING Singapore, A*STAR, Singapore Workforce Development Agency and universities are coming together to set up an Advanced Manufacturing Technology Academy that will offer both theoretical and practical knowledge. This, Butler feels, will help train the next generation of workforce needed to take Singapore’s manufacturing sector into the world of automation and Industry 4.0.

It is clear that automation may not replace workers but actually complement their work. By approaching machines with an augmentation strategy, being committed to upskilling workers and adopting early and clear communication, companies will be able to leverage human-machine partnerships for the benefit of all.   

This article was written based on a panel session that Future Ready Singapore attended at the Smart Manufacturing Asia conference (4-5 April 2017).

Edited by Kritika Srinivasan, Clement Cher and Marisa Low.