Businesses all over the world are benefiting from the rise of automation. From the use of robotics to expedite and streamline manufacturing processes, to simple IT automation thanks to low-cost software tools, automation can help just about any business in just about any sector.
Who automates what?
Some 56 per cent of businesses have either automated certain business processes already or plan to, according to a 2015 survey carried out by accounting giant Grant Thornton. The survey found that that the food and drink industry, manufacturing, technology and clean technology (aka ‘cleantech') sectors, are seeing the highest levels of global automation.
The rapid uptake of automation is symptomatic of a post-financial crisis industrial world in which efficiency and productivity are more important than ever.
“Post-financial crisis, firms continue to strive for greater efficiency and better productivity, and as businesses consider whether to invest in staff or machines, for many the latter is the more cost-effective solution."
(Steve Perkins, Global Leader for Technology at Grant Thornton)
Automation has already established itself throughout Europe and the US. Asia is quickly catching on; with China being the obvious example as the global powerhouse ups its investment in new machinery and technology.
There are obvious benefits in terms of productivity and innovation. But what about the downsides? There are some very real concerns that the rise of automation could result in widespread unemployment, as humans essentially become redundant in many day to day business operations.
The moral angle is just one of the issues you’ll need to consider if you’re weighing up automation in your business. Here’s a few more.
The transformative creep of automation
Most industries can benefit from automation in one way or another. In fact, we’re increasingly surrounded by automation so much so that in many instances we’ve barely even noticed it creep in.
In the manufacturing industry, automation in the form of robotics, injection moulding machinery, 3D printing and CNC machining is changing the way things are done. In some factories almost all processes are carried out robotically, while in others, the robots work alongside humans to increase efficiency.
IT automation, or business process automation, involves replacing the physical need to initiate repeated processes with a set of pre-programmed instructions. Implementing this change and removing repetitive tasks from the human workforce can obviously save businesses a huge amount of money.
- Robotics process automation (manufacturing)
- Business process automation (IT)
- Automation of logistics processes
- Automation of retail processes, such as at check-outs and restocking
In the retail and service industries self-check-outs provide an alternative to human cashiers, while robotics is busy replacing warehouse staff behind the scenes.
All this is taking place on a pretty large scale. But there is a trickle-down effect in motion. The developments that are transforming big businesses are finding their way into smaller companies’ systems and processes too.
We don’t always see it at first, but all of the following are examples of automation taking place in small companies across the UK today:
- E-mail and website log-in automation
- Social networking automation
- Automation of reporting tasks
- Late payment chasing
- IT maintenance automation
- Stationery re-ordering automation
- Client e-mail automation
- Computer back-up automation
- Accounting software
Is automation right for your business?
There are some clear advantages to automation, but machinery can’t always replace a well-trained and experienced member of staff and indeed, in smaller companies, the choice is not usually between machine and staff but rather about finding the right balance of both. Deciding if automation is right for your business is far from a yes or no question.
For some business practices, a staff member who can adapt to a situation and find solutions creatively will be a far more valuable asset than a piece of machinery that does things the same way every time. In other areas, you could find that automation quickly frees up your team’s time to look at more profitable activities, leaving the technology to plug away at the repetitive, predictable tasks.
Most companies will find at least one area in their company that could benefit from automation. Exactly how far you take automation, however, is unique to you and your business.
Questions to help you decide:
- What is my overall business strategy?
- What problem do I want to solve with the use of automation?
- Will the automation show a clear return on my investment?
- Can I integrate the technology easily?
- Are the benefits worth the initial investment?
- Will the automation align closely with the current and future needs of my business?
- What will my team do with their extra time?
The moral dilemma of automation
The move towards ‘digital labour’, where robotics and artificial intelligence could remove the need for a human workforce altogether, raises obvious ethical concerns.
There is little doubt that automation will lead to some jobs becoming obsolete.
There is little doubt that automation will lead to some jobs becoming obsolete. But businesses also face an undeniable threat from an ageing workforce and a lack of suitable skilled labour.
While some onlookers are concerned about the potential for high levels of unemployment, others claim that automation will transform business, improving efficiency and quality and simply moving the human workforce towards different types of jobs.
How to reduce the impact of automation on your workforce:
- Focus on redefining job roles for existing staff
- Offer training for lower-skilled staff
- Take on more staff as automation allows your business to grow
- Take on specialists that can offer higher levels of expertise
Perhaps the truth sits somewhere in the middle of the two scenarios, but while there is some evidence to suggest that poorer, less-skilled workers will be the most affected by the rise of automation, businesses would do well to consider the potential impact on their workforce, as well as their bottom line.
Automation presents some undeniably great opportunities for British businesses. While the bigger swings and movements in the trend are creating some serious and uncomfortable moral dilemmas, smaller companies across the UK are already benefiting massively from automation of their daily tasks, whether they’re using email templates, accountancy software, task reminders, project management software, automated re-ordering, improved phone systems… The list goes on.
Will your company be joining them?