Robots and automation are not “taking jobs” in this latest economic downturn, but instead doing the work few people want to do – from weeding to cleaning floors to stacking bins. And automation helps in more complex ways, too, like helping doctors make faster and more accurate diagnoses, helping banks detect fraud, or untethering supply chain logistics.
In this interview, we speak with Kevin Dunlap, Managing Partner at Project calibrationAbout the future of robotics and automation, why businesses need automation to survive tough economic times, and how this will lead to more prosperity for people, not less.
Gary Drenick: In the second quarter of 2022, according to New report More robots have been sold than ever before, surpassing every other quarter. Why are bot deployments growing so quickly and what does this mean for human labor?
Kevin Dunlap: We’re getting to a point where robotic automation makes economic sense outside of the very standard, static applications it initially occupied, such as automotive and manufacturing assembly lines. At Calibrate, we see that the “deep tech” aspects are now able to deliver true ROI for enterprise customers. We see enterprise customers in many industries looking to improve safety, productivity, accuracy and reliability with bots. The return on investment for customers to implement automation systems is here and I doubt it will slow from now on. Why is ROI finally here? First, we’ve seen a huge increase in wages in the past two years, with more and more people disinterested in doing unfulfilling or dangerous jobs. According to another Prosperity insights and analytics In the survey, 28.5% of Gen-Z workers plan to look for a new job in the next six months, showing how turnover has become the norm. In a volatile job market like the one we’ve seen over the past few years, it’s becoming clear that robots can do the boring, dirty, and dangerous jobs people don’t want to do effectively, reliably, and affordably.
Drenick: In light of the pandemic-induced labor shortage and major layoffs, what are the ways in which automation technologies are being deployed today that differ from what they were a few years ago?
Dunlap: The disruptions to work that began during the pandemic had already been underway for several years; People want to do meaningful and interesting work, and the pandemic has highlighted this trend. In the US, 26% of Gen Z workers and 21.5% of Millennials are unhappy with their jobs, according to Prosperity insights and analytics. Companies have had to start looking for ways to creatively and proactively solve labor problems, and provide workers with the benefits they want like working from home, flexibility, and better training.
Overall, 45% of Americans would prefer to work for a company that allows them to work from home, and that percentage rises to 56% for millennials, who make up the largest percentage of the workforce, he says. Prosperity insights and analytics. Companies are also beginning to seriously look at automation as a long-term solution to employment, manufacturing, production, logistics and other ongoing challenges. But what’s different now is that automation has become much more sophisticated, allowing companies to use bots in high-mix and low-volume manufacturing. Robots are now intelligent and autonomous enough to perform highly complex and diverse tasks – rather than just one repetitive motion on an assembly line.
Drenick: Which industries are deploying bots the fastest and why?
Dunlap: Some of the sectors that have taken a big leap forward towards robotic automation in the last couple of years include agriculture (weeding, harvesting, spraying, vertical farming, and food processing); Construction (independent excavation, surveying, 3D printed structures, drywall hanging, surface treatment); warehousing and logistics (mobile autonomous robots and exoskeletons used in warehouses, bundling and routing, picking and packing, autonomous yard trucks and forklifts, and drone delivery); security (border control, firearm detection, intruder alarms, home security monitoring); and Health & Wellness (Robotic Wet Labs for Drug Development and Surgery Robots).
Most companies use automation to improve efficiency. Companies that move quickly to implement automation will be able to reach full capacity in their factories to better meet customer demand. Of course, great work isn’t about 100% efficiency, but increased efficiency helps companies ensure that their customers receive quality products on time and at a fair price.
Drenick: How do robots today help workers rather than replace them, and how will this human-robot collaboration help companies survive the downturn and emerge stronger on the other side?
Dunlap: The vast majority of robotic applications perform functions that humans do not want or should not do for safety reasons. For example, repetitive sanding jobs lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and workers inhale harmful particles; We invested in a company called Gray Matter whose robots sand the shop floor with great precision. Or in food processing, few people want to stand in cold damp environments packing protein for consumers for hours on end. Another company we’ve supported, Soft Robotics, has robotic hands that can locate, sort, and select soft objects like chicken breast on processing lines and is used by Tyson and other large food companies. As far as “bots take jobs,” I don’t think it will impact as ominously as some expect. Humans are smart, creative and flexible and will find ways to create new technologies that grow the business sector. This evolution has happened many times before, including with cotton gins, telephone operators, word processors, and mass food processing, resulting in more jobs in general.
Automation can help the US economy recover more quickly from the current downturn. The United States has a higher cost of living and a higher cost of employment than many other countries, so if manufacturers are not able to find ways to improve productivity and control costs, they will not be able to compete globally in the years to come. American consumers currently rely on a number of foreign countries to produce everything from toys and infant formula to mission-critical semiconductors and medicines, and automation can help bring manufacturing back to the United States in many sectors.
Drenick: Which areas of robotic automation are most exciting to you as an investor and why? Why will these areas make the biggest impact in the near future?
Dunlap: At Calibrate, we’re very excited about robotic solutions that can thrive in changing environments, not just ones that perform a single task on a manufacturing line. Artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning—as well as the emerging fields of synthetic data and quantum computing—allow robotic systems to digest extremely large amounts of data and then adjust their actions based on that input. We see robots succeed in changing environments in manufacturing, food processing, healthcare, logistics, and transportation.
Drenick: How can we ensure that robotic automation supports human workers rather than replaces them?
Dunlap: Not everyone needs a computer science degree to succeed in the economy of the future. Bots need maintenance and training for specific tasks. There will also be many human jobs being augmented by collaborative bots, so workers will work alongside bots and gain new technical skills in supervising and interacting with them. Companies need to provide training to employees, so that they know how to work alongside, repair and maintain robots. Companies can offer coding bootcamps and other technical training to some employees, too, to help them move up the skills ladder. Technical degrees are in high demand, so colleges can expand their computer science, engineering, science, technology, engineering, and math departments. And on the other hand, a lot of the colleges that keep offering them aren’t necessarily relevant anymore, and they don’t provide an economic return for students, so they can streamline some of the departments. However, the humanities and social sciences are still important. The tech workers of the future will need to think creatively and collaborate with others — not just robots — so there can be more STEM interaction to create new degrees for our future world.
Drenick: Thanks, Kevin, for sharing your insights into the exciting world of robotic automation.