CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
November 18, 2018
Forward Thinking

Commentary: Machines are our friends

While many workers fear losing their jobs to automation, those fears—at least in the supply chain—are largely unfounded.

A recent research study reveals that the health of our nation's workers may be adversely affected by the fear of losing their jobs to automation.

The study, conducted by researchers at Ball State University and Villanova University, shows that even a 10-percent increase in the risk of automation leads to declines in workers' general, physical, and mental health. The research follows widely reported estimates that machines will eventually replace nearly half the jobs currently performed by humans. Workers understandably fear they will lose their livelihoods and be unable to care for their familiesa fear that is especially pronounced among workers in rural areas where job opportunities are scarce.

Of course, jobs will change as technologies evolve. This is nothing new. There are very few calls today for blacksmiths or elevator operators. Workers in those jobs had to adapt to changing technologies, with the result that many transferred their skills to other fields.

Some jobs will also change in the supply chain. Most positions in the future will likely require greater skills than the entry-level minimum-wage jobs that are common in warehouses. However, I believe the fear of widespread job loss in the supply chain is unfounded.

One reason for the rapid growth of automation in our industry is that there simply are not enough people available to do the work. With national unemployment at only 3.8 percent in May (the lowest rate since the Great Recession), we do not have the labor needed to meet the demands of industry growth. The limited labor pool makes it especially hard to find goodworkers. Machines help to make up this difference. It's not so much a case of machines replacing workers as a case of machines replacing people who simply are not there.

Beyond the need to fill labor gaps, most of the automated systems now being introduced in distribution operations are designed to make existing workers more productive and efficient. Instead of replacing workers, these machines simply make their jobs easier.

Today's robots and automated vehicles ferry products to workers, eliminating the need for them to roam the aisles in search of items, which results in less fatigue. They also pick products for workers, reducing tasks that involve repetitive reaching and twisting—a source of many job-related injuries.

In the past, manual warehouses required workers to lift and move hundreds of heavy boxes during the course of an eight-hour shift. Now, machines do the heavy lifting, allowing workers to concentrate on more productive tasks.

So, while some fear the future, I believe there will be plenty of work to go around. Say it with me: Machines are our friends, machines are our friends.

David Maloney is editorial director of CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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