Businesses have been increasingly automating tasks and processes over the past few decades. Thanks to advancements in technology, they are finding even more areas where automation can be used to streamline processes and help increase profits. According to a report by Grant Thornton International, about 60% of companies are already using automation or are planning to do so over the next few years. With such a push from businesses to automate, what advantages and disadvantages does automation come with?
One of the advantages often cited is increased efficiency. Automation increases efficiency by eliminating repetitive, time-consuming tasks. Doing this frees employees from doing such tasks and allows them to focus on tasks that increase a company’s productivity and output. A good example is in the use of self-service portals where employees can find the information they need without talking to the head of Human Resources, or where customers can do the same without having to talk to customer service agents.
Reliability and Consistency
One of the areas where automated machines beat humans is in reliability and consistency. For reliability, an employer cannot expect a person to work continuously without introducing a fault in the processing of a manual task. Also, in many cases, results are not reproducible unless a piece of software or machine is used to recreate the scenario that led to those results.
Automated machines, on the other hand, can do the same thing over and over without slowing down or taking breaks. Even when a machine is unable to reproduce results or scenarios, it is usually a fault on the programming end and not a failure of the machine itself.
People get tired, take breaks, and need to go home to cater to other parts of their lives. For many businesses, this equates to 12-16 hours where tools of production are sitting idle and the production output is zero. Machines do not have this problem because they can be programmed to work continuously until they need an upgrade or maintenance.
Automation Can Help Solve Labor Shortages
Automation can help alleviate the effects of labor shortages in plants, factories, and sites. A good example is in the CNC machining industry where skilled workers are required to complete different tasks like drilling, welding, and others consistently. When there is a shortage of skilled workers who can perform these tasks, a business can bring in machines that help automate these tasks, thereby helping reduce the impact of labor shortages.
Although expensive initially, automation is much cheaper than human labor in the long run. Machines do not incur recurring costs like humans do as they do not need to be continuously trained, which can be very expensive. Machines only need routine inspections, repairs, and software updates in some cases.
Automation also saves money by helping businesses reduce the number of employees they need. Doing this also saves money by helping businesses reduce the costs associated with their hiring processes like hiring recruiters and how much it costs to interview candidates.
Automation Increases Worker Safety
Worker safety is thought to be one of the first reasons for automation. Automation removes workers from dangerous positions in dangerous jobs. Such jobs include lifting, cutting, or working with harmful chemicals. Automation also removes workers from hands-on positions and transfers them to supervisory and maintenance roles, which has been shown to increase worker safety considerably.
Improved Product Quality
In addition to leading to increased production output, automation also performs tasks uniformly and with conformity to set standards and quality specifications. The result of this is higher quality products with a very low defect rate. This is another way automation saves businesses money as it eliminates the need for these businesses to go back and do another production run to cater for defective products. It also eliminates the need for businesses to produce more products than it needs to cater to the percentage of products that will come out defective.
Automation Reduces Lead Times
Lead time is the amount of time between an order being placed and the products being delivered. This gives businesses a competitive advantage through improved customer satisfaction and guaranteed product delivery. By reducing lead times, a business can also reduce its inventory costs. Businesses used to be forced to produce a large quantity of products so they would always have them in stock for when a customer made an order as a roundabout way of reducing lead times. With a shorter lead time, the need to produce a larger quantity than demanded is eliminated.
Automation Requires a Huge Initial Investment
Switching to automation is one of the most expensive investments businesses can make. Automation requires machines to be designed, fabricated, and installed. In some cases, special software needs to be developed so that the machines can perform the tasks they are made for efficiently.
Automation Can Lose Companies a Lot of Time
When a business introduces automation, it needs to train workers on how to operate, maintain, supervise, or even run the machines. This can take a lot of time and pull workers away from their assigned tasks and responsibilities. This is time lost in addition to the investment that needs to be made to ensure workers can make the best use of the new machines.
Little Room for Adaptation
Automation leads to a loss of flexibility and versatility. Most machines are made to do one task or a limited number of tasks. Also, machines are programmed to do the tasks it was programmed to, which reduces their flexibility. This is in sharp contrast to people who can always be assigned to new tasks as the need arises.
Automation Has a Ceiling in Efficiency
A problem most businesses do not think about is that automation has a ceiling for efficiency. What this means is that machines can only reach certain levels of efficiency before they need to be replaced. People improve over time and can be trained so they can find new, easier, and more efficient ways of accomplishing their goals and finishing their tasks.
When the topic of automation comes up, most people ask if machines are going to replace them in the future. Despite our best efforts, it is likely that any job that can be automated is already in the process of being automated or will be in the next few years. This is especially true for jobs that often have repetitive, manual, or system-based tasks. This can lead to a lot of emotional stress due to the uncertainty of not knowing if or when certain jobs will be automated. Also, anyone whose job is automated might have to retrain or relocate so that they can find a job elsewhere.
Automated Machines Are Bad at Responding to Changes
An inherent quality of machines is that they do not respond flexibly and quickly to changes. For example, if there are changes in product specifications, the machine has to be retooled so that it can work with the new parameters in mind. Sometimes, whole parts have to be replaced or new software is written to take into account the new changes.
Loss of Human Touch
Quality customer service is one of the most important aspects of running a business. Human connection and new ideas are what moves businesses forward. Think about how comforting it is to talk to a real human when you have a problem with a product or service instead of going through a wiki or an FAQ page. These human qualities cannot be replicated in machines.
An Overreliance on Automation
The risks associated with an overreliance on automation mean that workers can become slaves to machines instead of remaining their masters, human errors can endanger people, and society can come to rely on automation and automated processes so much so that they give up their privacy and freedom while trying to automate every part of their lives.
Automation Requires Quality Assurance Tests
Each new automated machine or automated process requires a quality assurance test in addition to quality control processes in place. This is so that the results produced by automated machines are better than those produced by humans, otherwise the investment in automation will be for nothing. Quality assurance and quality control take a lot of time and are also very expensive, especially for companies looking to automate significant parts of their practices and procedures.
Humans and Automation Will Need to Work Together
The discussion on automation usually centers on humans versus machines. This is not a productive way of thinking about this topic as automation and having human workers both have their pros and cons. Universities like Kettering University Online are exploring ways to help people see this. They look at both sides objectively, so visit their blog to better explore both sides of this discussion.
Looking at the pros and cons of automated machines and automation in business reveals that there is a lot to be said on both sides. In the end, automation comes with its unique set of advantages and disadvantages that should be explored carefully before businesses decide whether to automate or not.