Rise of the robots could help printers

Richard Stuart-Turner
Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Robots could replace 4 million jobs in the British private sector in the next decade, according to new research, but analysts argue that robotics and automation could help rather than hinder print.

A poll conducted by YouGov for the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), which analysed government datasets and asked business leaders and employers about the future of automation and artificial intelligence, found that up to 15% of the current workforce in the private sector could be replaced by robots.

Jobs in finance and accounting, transport and distribution, manufacturing, and media, marketing and advertising are most likely to be automated in the next 10 years, according to the thoughts of those surveyed.

The RSA report questioned whether concerns over robots replacing jobs are justified. It concluded that AI and robotics are more likely to alter jobs than to eliminate them and could put the UK on the path to a better world of work, as long as we implement automation on our own terms.

“New jobs will undoubtedly be formed just as others peter out. The number of programmers in the UK has grown by 40% since 2011, while the ranks of IT directors have doubled over the same period. More subtly, rising productivity caused by new machines could lead to a lowering of prices, thereby freeing consumers to divert their demand elsewhere in the economy,” the RSA said.

It also argued that, while new technology could deskill occupations and bring forth an unhealthy degree of workplace surveillance, it could also raise productivity levels, make UK businesses more competitive, open up the door to higher wages and phase out dull, dangerous and dirty tasks.

It therefore stressed that the UK should accelerate its take-up of AI and robotics, but on terms that deliver an inclusive kind of automation which enriches rather than diminishes worker livelihoods.

Sales of industrial robots to the UK decreased between 2014 and 2015, with the UK purchasing fewer robots than France, the US, Germany, Spain and Italy, the RSA said. Only 14% of the business leaders surveyed said they are currently investing in this technology or plan to in the near future.

Mike Wilson, sales and marketing manager at ABB Robotics, said: “Robots are typically used for repetitive, mundane and arduous tasks that people don’t really want to do and probably shouldn’t be doing in this day and age.

“It’s all about giving our workforce the tools to be more productive. UK productivity is behind most of our major competitors and unless we address that, we are going to struggle to be competitive going forward.

“If we can automate the tasks that people are not particularly good at or not suited to, and then utilise the workers to perform the tasks where they can add value to the products that are being processed, then we will be more productive and more competitive and our industries will grow and be able to employ more people.”

Smithers Pira print consultant Sean Smyth added: “Futurologists have a fantastic record of getting things absolutely wrong. They give their opinions because they’re asked for them, not because they know.

“I think it’s going to be more subtle – I don’t think you’ll see robots replacing specific operators, human beings are incredibly flexible and robots by and large are incredibly inflexible, even the clever ones.

“Print is basically all about flexibility – in the commodity market you will see no-touch automation but they will still need somebody when things go wrong. You will certainly see machines handling a lot of the manual lifting and repetitive manual tasks, however.

“I think robots will be more complimentary and workers will then hopefully get more opportunity to take more value-added approaches and make more money for the printing company.”

The RSA research follows a study published two years ago, The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to automation, which found that printing industry workers had a mixed outlook as to the likelihood of their jobs being replaced by automation.

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