Robotics and Automation In the Post-COVID-19 Factory of the Future

To the uninitiated, a factory staffed by a workforce of robots that require very little human oversight may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but the truth is we’ve been living in the future for quite some time in this regard. Robotics systems in the manufacturing industry are already commonplace, even right here on South African shores, where they contribute greatly to our automobile industry and many others where only adherence to the highest international standards will suffice.


In 2019 – before almost every industry sector was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic – Deloitte published its 2019 Global Human Capital trends report, investigating how technology would impact companies around the world. Even then, more than half of South African respondents were exploring live automation, and 58% reported at least an intention to use robotic automation or artificial intelligence to take over repetitive tasks from human workers.


As computing power grows, and with the new need for social distancing in the workplace, fully or partially automated production lines are more and more tempting – not to mention accessible – to a future-thinking manufacturer.


But is robotic automation really what South Africa needs when it comes to seizing the opportunities of the 4th Industrial Revolution in the post COVID-19 age? Many argue that the high unemployment rate (set to spike as the Coronavirus takes its economic toll), and a lack of local skills and appropriate education in the field, should make the manufacturing industry think twice. Additionally, there are those who would argue that South Africa’s most important employers, the small and medium-sized business, is hardly the type to be able to afford and run robotic production lines, even if they do increase productivity. The truth, though, is just the opposite.


Robotic Automation creates jobs

In a very real way, robotic automation has already proved to be a boon to South African workers. We can demonstrate how automation has grown local industries by again examining the automotive manufacturing sector, which is one of the country’s main economic contributors and one of its largest employers. This sector alone contributed about 33% of the country’s manufacturing output in 2016, and we have, in large part, industrial robots and robotic systems to thank.


Without robotic automation that can guarantee a certain level of productivity and standard of quality, European and Japanese car manufacturers may not have considered off-shoring their manufacturing jobs to South African plants at all. The growth of our local industries simply cannot be maintained without the confidence of heavy-hitting international players in an increasingly competitive and globalised market.


The rise of the super-job

But workers won’t be left out in the cold. Automation is predicted to not only increase demand for high-tech skills and drive South African into 4IR, but also create new opportunities in the form of hybrid “super jobs” that have real potential to upskill workers and drive the digital economy. The World Economic Forum estimated in its 2018 The Future of Jobs report, that, while intelligent machines are expected to displace 75 million workers by 2022 (a pre-COVID-19 prediction), they are also expected to create 133 million new roles – a net gain of 58 million jobs.


More affordability, more flexibility

Can a small enterprise really make use of such high-tech tools? Of course we usually envision robotic manufacturing systems operating in high-speed, high-volume operations, so many are surprised to learn they can be configured for growing businesses (low-to-medium output) as well. Thanks to a greater focus on flexibility and customisation in recent years, many robotic systems can be reconfigured for new tasks easily. As labour costs rise and the price of equipment continues to drop, the adoption of robotic systems to perform a wide variety of tasks is set to go from a nice-to-have option to an essential asset for growing businesses.


Increased Productivity saves money and time

If “time is money” was every business’s mantra pre-COVID-19, you can rest assured it’s taken on an added layer of importance today. Operating at maximum efficiency is a matter of survival in a global economy shaken to the core by the pandemic. Operating 24 hours a day, a robotically enabled and automated production line can ensure that not a spare moment is wasted when it comes to growing a business’s bottom line.

More affordable, more capable and more customisable robotic automation systems are already transforming the manufacturing industry beyond anything imaginable only a generation ago. In turbulent times, manufacturers are set to grab onto this opportunity to enhance production and reduce costs with both hands, or else risk losing out to a shaky economy and their more agile, future-forward competitors.