The start of each new year brings predictions about technology — and how the automation impact on workplaces will spell change for the industries in which members work. Here are four automation trends that may affect your members and how you can help them prepare.
Workplaces have felt the influence of robots for decades. By now, more than 2.4 million industrial robots streamline work in factories around the world. What's more, their use is rapidly expanding. Collaborative robots — which work side by side with humans — make up a growing segment of robot sales. Improved machine visioning has enhanced the human-to-robot connection: Advances in machine learning software are expanding what robots can do, allowing them to teach themselves and adapt to their work environments and eliminating the need to design the workplace around the robot. Robots' ability to grasp objects is improving so that the machines can be used in a wider array of jobs.
The introduction of advanced robots into the workplace has the potential to affect the health and safety of members, such as by taking on some of the repetitive or dangerous tasks that can cause strain and injury. For example, a robot might be programmed to retrieve materials from high shelves so that workers don't have to climb for it or use a forklift.
Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT), the network of interrelated devices, machines and other objects, is set to gain a bigger foothold in the workplace in 2020. More employers are providing workers with wearables to use on the job. These devices can track vital signs and movements, uncovering patterns that could indicate when a worker needs medical attention or a mechanics correction. For example, devices have hit the market that monitor ergonomics, alerting workers when they need to straighten up or better position the body to prevent muscular strain.
IoT isn't limited to tracking the human body, however. Workplaces can use equipment sensors to improve predictive maintenance and help prevent machine failure by recognizing performance patterns and then alerting workers to problems before they happen. These connected devices can optimize machine performance, avert dangerous situations and make workplaces safer, ensuring that both the machines and individuals are in peak condition.
Virtual reality (VR) isn't limited to just gaming. It has nearly endless possibilities in manufacturing, construction, transportation and other industries because of its potential to make processes more efficient. VR can offer a 360-degree view of a machine or building without requiring a worker to be on-site. This can help detect errors and determine what repairs are needed before extensive time is invested in a fix. VR can also be a training tool, providing a safe and inexpensive alternative to traditional instruction. For example, a member working in the construction industry might undergo virtual training to operate a crane before getting behind the controls, or a bus operator could spend time learning routes through VR before navigating real-life traffic.
By 2025, the 3D-printing market is expected to be worth more than $275 billion. As 3D-printing technology advances, it has become more relevant to a wider range of workplaces, from factories to construction sites. In one real-life application of the technology, a concrete extruding 3D printer has been developed that can build a house in around 20 hours, while a more traditional 3D printer relying on plastic can help create custom-fitted parts, prototypes and components lighter than their metal counterparts. 3D printing has the ability to save time and reduce the risk of injury for certain work, allowing a worker to safely and confidently shift their focus to more intensive, hands-on tasks.
Preparing for the Shift
Members might take a negative view of new technology in the workplace, fearing that it could make their jobs obsolete. However, many of the trends expected for 2020 are actually more likely to create new jobs, and even more aim to make existing work safer and more efficient. To calm members' nerves, keep them updated on coming automation trends and what it could mean for their work. Offer training, or let members know where they can take classes to gain the skills they'll need in a more automated workplace (even if those automation trends haven't yet come online where they work).
Analysts in many sectors expect that automation impact will continue to expand with each coming year. As with most trends, preparation and communication are key to ensuring your members are ready for any new technology that may become part of their day-to-day routine.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy. She also served as volume editor for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. She holds a degree in journalism from The George Washington University.