Humans, when put through challenges, emerge wiser. The pandemic is no exception. It has made us wiser and permanently changed some aspects of our lives and thought processes. One of the key takeaways for entrepreneurs is to reduce dependencies on humans and accelerate the adoption of technologies and automation.
Automation, for all the bad press that it gets like a job eliminator, in the long run, proves otherwise, pushing the human endeavour towards higher planes. The jury is still out on that, though.
Contrary to the common belief that deployment of technologies and automation would shave off the bottom line, well-thought-through investments in the right technologies and automation of processes, in the long run, would dramatically improve the profitability through error elimination, improved productivity and quality, enhanced decision-making capability, optimised inventory and many more.
Robotics is a programmable machine or a software programme capable of carrying out complex operations automatically.
It can take the form of a physical machine that can work in closed or open spaces; it can be pre-programmed for a task such as in assembly line manufacturing, or it can leverage machine learning and adapt to its task, or it can be a mere software programme that automates business processes, called robotic process automation (RPA).
Whether physical or digital, robots guarantee an increase in process efficiency, improve quality, lead to higher customer satisfaction and directly impact profitability on one hand while reducing deployable resources, collapsing completion timelines, and avoiding rework and associated costs on the other.
The differences are that physical robots are heavy on investment, good for 3D (dull, dirty and dangerous) jobs and where actions have to be conducted remotely.
A further look into such automation processes would help us understand the need for these technologies in certain environments, the ways of adopting them, and the resultant benefits.
Physical robots carry out 3D jobs or those termed almost impossible for human workers to undertake. Mainly because either boredom or fatigue sets in when humans perform repetitive, mundane tasks.
However, robots are more precise and versatile than human workers in such environments. This results in a lower failure rate, increase in production and profit margin commensurable to its speed.
Though no definite findings prove robots don’t make mistakes, these robots certainly make fewer errors compared to a human, saving on, in most cases, expensive rework (rework costs alone could be as high as five per cent in some instances).
Looking at the glass half full
While robotics is seen as “reducing” job opportunities, that “reduction” is more related to repetitive and mundane tasks. Looking at the glass half full, robotics shifts human effort to focus on more creative and better remunerative jobs. This also pushes society towards a knowledge economy.
Of course, there are challenges associated with change management, reskilling and upskilling, but it can spell a win-win for both workers and business owners if managed well. Besides, the competitive force drives innovation, and the choice is largely between shape-up or ship-out.
Automating manual work can also be looked upon as closing the labour gap and keeping humans away from hazardous assignments, thereby reducing consequent workplace liabilities. Automation brings with it certain predictability in scheduling, flexibility in workload management, and the ability to extend overtime; robots work anytime, anywhere, and without a break, if so warranted.
Robots lead to higher productivity, coupled with the emergence of remote diagnostics and, more recently, self-diagnostics, reducing repairing expenses and loss-inducing production downtime.
Modern robots contribute to savings in energy costs (up to 20 per cent by certain estimates) and are capable of operating without any supervision and even under extreme weather conditions.
They are versatile; unlike human workers who take time and effort to master a skill, robots are versatile and carry out tasks set for them through programming, and in some cases, through self-learning. Certain companies are moving towards connecting robots to the cloud to accelerate self-learning.
The initial barriers to adoption
With so many advantages, the barrier to adoption is the initial investment which in many cases turns out to be prohibitive. Though it’s been proven beyond doubt that robots, in the long run, turn out to be cost-effective, it’s the availability of cheap labour to fulfil the current needs and the need for large capital investments that have kept the adoption rate of robots low in this country.
With the current labour shortage, there is deep thinking in the industry to find a more permanent solution to keep pace with growth objectives.
One of the solutions to overcome the barrier of big capital investment is through the design, development and production of robots locally in Malaysia. A conscious effort must be made to create an ecosystem for robotic companies to thrive in the country.
Empowering startups, setting up national competitions, creating sandboxes, encouraging students to take up robotic courses, and streamlining the supply chain, grants, and soft loans are some ways to exploit the benefits of robotics.
While physical robots benefit society by shifting the most difficult 3D jobs to machines, the software-based robotic process automation is capable of taking over mundane jobs from knowledge workers. Knowledge workers, who generally dislike tedious tasks like data consolidation, reconciliation, and report generation, could be moved to more challenging creative assignments.
In this scenario, RPA is much more effective, extending beyond the shop floor or production processes and into the offices of finance, marketing, sales, human resources (HR) and other departments across industries.
RPA is much more pervasive, not restricted to the shop floor or production processes. It benefits the office of finance, marketing, sales, HR and other departments of any industry segment for that matter.
With Automating Statement Reconciliation, for example, coupled with RPA and AI, businesses can use automation solutions to upload all the statements that they receive in the paper, PDF, excel or any other data formats onto their central processing system. These statements are then automatically reconciled against data from the accounts payable ledger, and outliers (in certain instances, fraud) are easily identified.
We can see an overwhelming need to improve the efficiency of the traditional reconciliation process, which is very time-consuming and prone to error. This applies equally to traditional manufacturing as well as financial institutions like banks.
Surprisingly, unlike physical robots, initial investments into such process automation technologies are significantly small. The returns could be seen almost instantaneously by choosing the right tools and manpower. Such success would give the confidence to invest more in technology and consider such investments as levers for higher profit.
Generally, it’s important to look at any technology spend as an investment for higher profits, better quality and greater customer satisfaction.