robots re/make: man, machine and the future of work

in rethinking robotics, trending now by Jim Lawton

HBR Live: Man, Machine, and the Future of Work - from left to right: Julia Kirby HBR's editor at large, Jim Lawton of Rethink Robotics, Eryk Brynjolfsson of MIT, and Tom Davenport of Babson College

Last week, the Harvard Business Review took on this topic with a panel discussion. Joining Julia Kirby, editor-at-large, were Thomas H. Davenport, professor at Babson College and Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and myself.

The conversation was about what smart machines will mean primarily for knowledge workers. Lawyers, accountants, reporters, etc. We each brought our own perspectives on what the advanced age of robots will mean to workers, based on where and how we view the situation.

In manufacturing, we see the rise of smart, collaborative robots as a real opportunity for workers. It may seem counter-intuitive, but it makes sense. Automation has been part and parcel of the production environment for nearly 40 years, with a proven track record of driving down costs and increasing efficiency. Here’s the rub though. Up to 90 percent of tasks in manufacturing today cannot be automated with traditional robots. Who’s doing that work? People. Humans with much greater cognitive abilities, flexibility and dexterity are stuck counting cups, packing and unpacking boxes, etc. Work that is tedious, repetitive and definitely not knowledge-based.

Now, manufacturing is evolving. Having wrung cost out and increased efficiency for decades, manufacturers are realizing that the trade-offs between cost/efficiency and innovation/flexibility have got to be reconciled. For companies like Jabil, the awareness that the low-cost labor model has run its course is driving a new approach to building its factory of the future.

These environments will require knowledge workers – people who can take the data and analysis served up by machines and interpret it, make decisions based on it, and design processes to execute those decisions. As envisioned by Sally Applin here and here, robots will certainly free people from the jobs no one wants. But more importantly, by enabling workers to program their robots out where the context happens, manufacturers will enable knowledge workers to creatively solve problems. With the right training and skills, manufacturing jobs will, once again, be good jobs.

Manufacturing showed the way to improve efficiency and lower cost with automation. Will it have valuable lessons to share for other industries in this era? Absolutely. Our customers are already well on their way to envisioning and making real the future model of work.


About the Author

Jim Lawton

Jim had a choice upon graduating from Tufts University – chase a dream as a concert pianist or become part of the inaugural Leaders for Manufacturing Program at MIT. He chose the latter– dedicating his career to developing and delivering innovative solutions that improve the business of manufacturing. Internally at HP, and then at breakthrough start-ups in e-commerce, inventory optimization and supply chain risk management, Jim’s never once looked back. His charter today: capture the power of data and analytics to push the standard for world-class manufacturing higher—once again.

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