The Robotic Workforce

How Education is Driving Workplace Automation

For generations, television and Hollywood have taught us to believe that robots are usually one of two extremes: cute and harmless, or potentially destructive and deadly. From the flailing-armed robot in the 1960s TV series Lost in Space metallically yelling, “Danger, Will Robinson, Danger!” to the unstoppable cyborg assassin in 1984’s The Terminator and its many sequels, to the film adaptation of Science Fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot in 2004, robots are charming and clunky, downright menacing, or in the case of the creations in I, Robot, benign – that is, until they defy The Three Laws of Robotics, namely to follow specific orders and never allow humans to be harmed.
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Today, robotics and automation are much less feared than they are embraced. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we marveled at now-primitive Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) and self-checkout machines, which have found their way into grocery stores, pharmacies, and even libraries. Just a year ago, fast food giant McDonald’s saw its stock skyrocket from $142 to $180 when the chain unveiled 2,500 digital ordering kiosks, with thousands more rolling out across the United States and Canada. Calling it the “Experience of the Future,” some criticized these machines as job-killers, an opinion challenged by McDonald’s Chief Executive Officer Steve Easterbrook, who stated these self-order kiosks are not a labor replacement, but instead will enable staff to engage in other activities, such as providing table service to hungry customers.

While some jobs will undoubtedly become redundant owing to automation, other roles will come into play – much sooner than we expect – and there will be a need for trained workers to step in and take charge to design, program, manufacture, install, maintain, and repair robotic systems. Across North America, there is a push by colleges and universities towards training for future careers in automation, robotics, electromechanical engineering, and other related disciplines. Some have referred to this as the coming of “The Second Machine Age,” an electronic revolution powered by software, hardware, and networks, that will change the way we work, live, and play.

Teaching the future
Along with traditional math and science courses, many colleges and universities offer programs in automation and robotics. George Brown College, for example, has a 32-week-long Automation Technician program through its School of Mechanical and Engineering Technologies, created to meet the increasing needs of industry. Students learn about all aspects of automated manufacturing systems including digital electronics, Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), hydraulics, pneumatics, robotic systems, and more delivered online through LogixSim, a software simulation suite designed to provide real world lab simulations “of electricity, electronics, robotics, and programmable logic controllers.”

Like George Brown, other colleges feature courses providing important skills, such as Centennial College’s Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology – Automation and Robotics (Fast-Track) program. Geared to qualified university or college graduates of engineering and science programs, applicants are streamed directly into year two (semester three) of this three-year engineering program. Hands-on, students work in labs with embedded systems using microcontrollers and a number of systems as they learn how to integrate automated equipment through design, fabrication, and installation.

With the spike in automation, North America’s universities and colleges are preparing for additional demand for skilled workers in the field. Ontario Colleges, for example, has a considerable amount of information available dedicated to “What to expect from a career in Robotics, Automation and Electromechanical Engineering.” Robotics and automation programs (usually offered as two or three-year programs) are usually under electromechanical engineering technology, to create skills focused on the manufacturing and industrial applications of robotics.

Worldwide, there are a number of organizations and associations centred on advancing automation, including New York-based IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the largest technical professional organization for the advancement of technology in the world. In the mid-Eighties, the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society (RAS) was created. With its mission of fostering the development and exchange of scientific and technological knowledge about robotics and automation, “RAS strives to advance innovation, education, and fundamental and applied research in robotics and automation.” Other older organizations continue to work on behalf of the industry, such as the International Society of Automation (ISA). Founded in 1945, the ISA is a worldwide leading non-profit organization with over 40 000 members. Supported by corporate partners involved in the automation sector such as Siemens, the ISA develops standards, provides training and education, publishes technical articles and books, certifies industry professionals, hosts conferences, and more.

Automation: Benefitting the workplace
When it comes to robotics and the rise of automation, the expression ‘resistance is futile’ comes to mind. Since 2000, approximately nine out of every ten jobs that have vanished in the U.S. have been due to automation. While some will always consider automation evil and a “job killer,” others – particularly manufacturers – will eagerly embrace automation for many reasons, including efficiency, reduced costs, higher profits, and safety. Job losses owing to technological advances are not new, as anyone who lived and worked in the 1980s with the rise of computers will attest. The solution? Instead of resisting change in the workplace, it should be embraced, and driven by education. For every job lost to automation, others will be created, and it is critical young persons and employers alike take part in this shift.

While it may seem inconceivable to some that robots will one day do their jobs better than their human counterparts, there is no stopping the technological clock, which is ticking faster than ever. A recent paper from Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research entitled How Vulnerable are American Communities to Automation, Trade, and Urbanization? examines the state of the economy. Undergoing dramatic labor market changes across the U.S., the past two decades have seen considerable “social, economic and political turbulence,” according to the paper, which discusses the 30 percent decline in manufacturing (much of it due to outsourcing), and how some parts of America are flourishing while others are struggling.

As in the eighties with the rise of desktop computers, jobs which will be most affected today are those most easily replaced by automation, such as lower-income positions like telemarketing and data entry. “Some places and people observe robust benefits while others observe primarily costs,” states the paper. “This has important economic, social, and political implications.” While there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to jobs being replaced by automation, there is also zero benefit in resisting, even fearing, technological change. As automation and robotics advance, the next generation of employees needs to be made up of college and university graduates who not only accept changes in the workplace, but value them. Some jobs will inevitably disappear, to be replaced by others, filled by recent graduates who accept the new realities of technology.

July 17, 2018, 7:08 AM EDT

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