Technology & IT Procurement Pulse Blog The Benefits of Automation
The Technological Revolution, including automation in manufacturing and the automotive industry is synonymous with great innovations and rapid developments taking place during the Second Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century through the early 1900s. Advancements like the assembly line and automated machines, which replaced work that used to be performed manually, led to positive outcomes, including efficiency and mass production of manufactured goods at significantly higher rates.

It’s a known fact that in a manufacturing setting, robotics and automated machines improve productivity and reduce labor costs. And yes, they replace workers. So, it is not surprising that businesses will always embrace automation. To businesses, automated machines are like the perfect worker who works seven days a week, never takes breaks, never asks for a raise, and never gets sick. Sounds like a deal you simply cannot resist, doesn’t it? Ask the same question of a blue-collar worker displaced due to automation and expect a different answer.

In a recently published article: The Robots Are Coming for Garment Workers, The Wall Street Journal discusses how automation is already putting many garment industry workers out of work in developing countries. While that is bad news for these countries, the use of automated machines in the apparel industry can be good news for US-based factories. Labor costs could be reduced by introducing automation and some garment production could be brought back to the US.

The other side of this story is equally true: not all workers whose jobs have been eliminated due to technology and automation end up being absorbed by the new industries or sectors created. This means that for many blue-collar workers, the impact of automation is real and painful.

So, is automation good? Automated machines powered by software perform repetitive tasks quickly and consistently while freeing workers up to focus on jobs that require soft skills.

McKinsey’s Five Lessons from History on AI, Automation, and Employment notes that there are positive long-term benefits of technology advancements and automation due to the new jobs that are being created and productivity increases, which offset the jobs that are lost in the short-term. According to the same report, US manufacturing experienced a decrease from 26% of total US unemployment in 1960 to less than 10% in 2017. Overall employment experienced an upward trend due to new industries and jobs created by emerging technologies.

For the past couple of decades, state governments nationwide have recognized the benefits of automating the procurement process. eProcurement implementations, which automated the requisition, ordering, and tracking process, resulted in savings in processing costs, efficiencies, and increased productivity. These benefits are especially important, given the limited staff and increased responsibilities procurement offices still face. According to state responses to the 2018 NASPO Survey of State Procurement Practices, only 35% of the responding states reported actual staff increases in the past two years, despite the increase in responsibilities in 83% of the states.

The Age of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

We have now entered what is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which builds on the Third (Digital Revolution) and is moving at unprecedented rates marked by the use of advanced emerging technologies.

Today’s robotics and automation in manufacturing and other industries are getting more sophisticated and can lead to higher productivity and efficiencies. Cobots (collaborative robots) are a more versatile version of traditional industrial robots that are becoming popular. They can work alongside workers in factories and warehouses without displacing jobs completely.

Some of us, especially Sci-Fi enthusiasts, get excited about robots and the possibility of artificial intelligence (AI) advancement, while others worry that the very AI machines designed by humans could soon get so close to human thinking, taking over the world and destroying their maker. Movies like Ex Machina and Blade Runner 2049 are certainly pushing the boundaries of our imagination. But are we there yet? And what does living in the age of artificial intelligence really mean?

Whether you are aware of it or not, AI is already affecting your life. We’re all using some form of AI whether it’s Siri, Alexa, your Google personal assistant, or Google Maps (which uses algorithms to optimize our daily commute, adjusting the route away from traffic accidents and construction).

Yann LeCun, former Director of AI Research at Facebook, believes that in spite of the rapid advancements in developing truly intelligent machines, “we’re not even close to a rat” in terms of general intelligence and making machines learn basic human or animal behavior. So, rest assured, robots are not coming for us yet or in the foreseeable future!

Examples of AI use for state or federal government applications are on the rise. Areas where AI is making an impact are healthcare, transportation, agriculture, food, and public safety. A GovInsider report notes the use of AI to improve procurement and payment processing are in an exploratory phase. Denmark for instance is looking into using it to evaluate grant applications and paying welfare benefits to citizens. There are data privacy and security concerns associated with the AI used for government and healthcare applications and proper safeguards need to be in place.

Virtual assistants are another area with a lot of growth potential. Facebook has offered a facial recognition feature on photos for more than six years.

Drones are becoming invaluable tools as many more uses are found in the commercial and state government arena. Drones’ versatility allowed for expanded public use by government agencies, including construction, agriculture, public safety and law enforcement. Read NASPO’s 2017 TechNext installment on drones for examples of current usage as well as some guidance and considerations when procuring drones.

Self-driving cars will soon become a reality for all of us. 2016 was deemed the year of the autonomous car, registering high-levels of excitement and major investments from tech companies, car manufacturers, creating a tipping point, as reported by CNN.

These are clearly exciting times and technology is moving faster than anyone expected, changing us and the world as we know it. Stay tuned for Part II of The Age of AI and Automation to find out what the future holds and what we can do to be prepared.