Replacing humans with machines and saving jobs?

Control Engineering International: While automation and robotics will replace some jobs to keep manufacturing competitive, they will create other positions in computers, mathematics, architecture, and engineering, according to Control Engineering China, citing World Economic Forum information. Is manufacturing ready for the transition?
By Stone Shi April 9, 2016

Stone Shi is executive editor-in-chief, Control Engineering China. Courtesy: Control Engineering ChinaAre countries preparing for the shift in education as more automation and robotics make manufacturing more competitive?

The World Economic Forum stated recently that by 2020, the development of science and technology will lead to net losses of more than 5 million jobs in 15 developed countries. These countries include Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, U.K., and U.S. Some statistical data indicates that the quantity of labor force in 15 major economic entities accounts for approximately 65% of the global labor force, which means that the development of robots and artificial intelligence technologies will lead to unemployment of about 10 million people globally in the next 5 years.

The World Economic Forum also estimates there may be 7.1 million fewer job posts through layoffs and job elimination, automation, or disintermediation, as 2.1 million new jobs will be created. The new positions focus on more specialized fields, such as computer, mathematics, architecture, and engineering. The formation of these new job posts may partially offset negative impact brought by the reduction of job posts. However, if not handled in advance, the advantages of such a transformation may be fewer than expected.

While replacing humans with machines may be the first thought, increasing use of robotics is a growth area for many industries. 

Timing for more robots?

For administrators in manufacturing enterprises, is replacing workers the greatest value of industrial robots? Do workers need to be concerned about layoffs in the short term?

While some have called for "substituting machines for humans," there is still a long way to go before robots replace a large number of workers. For many locations, the cost to purchase and implement industrial robot systems cannot be ignored. Most establishments seem likely to choose incremental investments, rather than large-scale implementations seeking quick money.

In view of greater robotics and automation, enterprises must have sufficient long-term planning in place to train or hire more specialized personnel in engineering design and equipment maintenance in enterprises. While industrial robots may be considered the model of "intelligent equipment," in principle there is little distinction between robotic intelligence and highly automated production equipment. As market demands accelerate, industrial robot systems seem unlikely to meet continuously changing production demands, with time required for setup and debugging.

While the phrase "replacing humans with machines" sounds an alarm, people should realize that the primary cause of unemployment is market competition rather than industrial robots. This is almost an irreversible trend.

Orderly transition, not disruption

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, said, "If no urgent and targeted action is taken today to make planning of short-term transformation and establish labor force with technology required in the future, governments of various countries will have to confront continuously increasing unemployment rate, social inequality, and business environment in which consumer groups increasingly shrink in the future."

In other words, if we are faced with demands to substitute machines for humans more urgently in rigorous competition, it may be difficult to practically advance rapidly with lack of appropriate talent, technology thresholds, investment costs, etc. This is the advanced warning many Chinese manufacturing enterprises need. Are we really ready?

Stone Shi is executive editor-in-chief, Control Engineering China; edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media,

More Advice

Key concepts

While automation and robotics can save manufacturers from shutdowns, are workers prepared for a shift in roles?

Wholesale layoffs because of robots seem unlikely in the short term.

Are manufacturers and workers ready if a faster shift to automation is needed?

Consider this

Are countries and manufacturers helping workers make the needed transitions as manufacturers become increasingly automated?

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