7 min read

We don’t live to work – we work to live. Forward-thinking companies are trying whatever it takes to keep employees happy while ensuring the business grows. One such route that’s being embraced by many industries is automation.


While a healthy work-life balance can mean different things to different people, one thing is certain: no one enjoys feeling overworked or bored. Having to squeeze too many tasks into a seven-hour workday can be stressful, and this stress can be detrimental to personal relationships, health and happiness. Likewise, doing the same repetitive tasks day in and day out can leave people feeling unfulfilled and disengaged.

This is where automation can help.

Robots improving worklife balance

Credit: Ioannis Oikonomou


Over the next 50 years automation will increase global productivity gains by 0.8-1.4% annually

McKinsey

Though robotics and AI have been gradually making their way into various industries over the last two decades, in the last couple of years their capabilities have exploded. Today, automation and innovative technologies are transforming businesses of all sizes and sectors.

McKinsey predicts that over the next 50 years automation will increase global productivity gains by 0.8-1.4% annually. This is a big increase, especially compared with the productivity growth from the steam engine (0.35% during 1850-1910), early robotics (0.36% during 1993-2007) and information technology (0.6% during 1995-2005).

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how today’s automation is already boosting business productivity as well as employee happiness.

Apis Cor 3D printer

Apis Cor 3D printer
Credit: Fizpaket (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The sector: Construction

The job: Construction worker

How:

Apis Cor, a San Francisco-based startup, recently built a whole house in 24 hours using 3D printing technology. Constructed on a test site in Russia, a mobile 3D printer created the concrete walls, partitions and roof. Human manual labour was needed to paint the building and install wiring, insulation and roofing material. The result was a 400-square-foot house.

Apis Cor says the house costs roughly $10,134 to make and claims it can last for 175 years. The company hopes these houses could help rehouse those affected by natural disasters.

“We want to help people around the world to improve their living conditions. That’s why the construction process needs to become fast, efficient and high quality as well. For this to happen we need to delegate all the hard work to smart machines.”

—Nikita Chen-yun-tai, Founder, Apis Cor

Da Vinci robot

Da Vinci surgical robot
Credit: ©2016 Intuitive Surgical, Inc. [CC BY-SA 3.0]

The sector: Medicine

The job: Surgeon

How:

Da Vinci Surgery is a robot-assisted tool that can perform delicate surgical tasks with better precision and minimal invasion to the patient compared with a human hand. Because, unlike a human hand, which would struggle to remain steady for procedures lasting for several hours, a robotic arm can stay still and free up staff on procedure time.

While the technology has been around for a number of years, it has only recently become financially feasible for hospitals thanks to lower production costs. With shorter surgery times for patients, and fewer people needed in the operating theatre, the benefits could help ease the challenges of an aging population and a worldwide shortage in medical staff.

“Robotic surgery is an example of a cutting-edge development which is likely to improve outcomes for patients, reduce complications, and give patients who might have previously been unsuitable for surgery the opportunity to benefit.”

—Alistair Chesser, Chief Medical Officer, St Bartholomew’s Hospital

Heliograf, the automated storytelling tool

Courtesy of Joey Marburger via Nieman Lab

The sector: Journalism

The job: Reporter

How:

Heliograf first began reporting for The Washington Post in 2016, providing medal coverage during the Rio Olympics. Now it’s covering congressional election results and minor league football games.

How it works is simple: editors create narrative templates that include key phrases. The Heliograf bot is then connected to a source of structured data (such as polling data or game results) and then automatically writes and publishes articles.

The Washington Post hopes the tool can make the newsroom more efficient so journalists can focus on writing stories that require greater creativity and human insight.

“We’re naturally wary about any technology that could replace human beings, but this technology seems to have taken over only some of the grunt work.”

—Fredrick Kunkle, Staff Writer, The Washington Post (via Wired)

Max, the robot dispenser

Credit: Will Chemists via chemistanddruggist.co.uk

The sector: Pharmacy

The job: Pharmacy dispenser

How:

At a family-run pharmacy in Scotland, it’s not a human dispensing prescriptions anymore – it’s a robot. Speaking to Chemist+Druggist, Galen Will, pharmacist director of Will Chemists, explained that, since installing the robot, prescription volume has increased from an average of 8,000 to 17,000 a month. Added to that, waiting times and dispensing errors have all dramatically reduced.

This efficiency in service has led to a surge in demand, which has prompted the pharmacy to recruit two more permanent staff members to help. And with the dispensing process automated, pharmacists are having more time to spend with their patients.

“There’s no question about it. Turnover has gone through the roof.”

—Galen Will, Director, Will Chemists

CATCH project

Credit: © Fraunhofer IPK

The sector: Farming

The job: Cucumber harvesting

How:

In Germany the traditional method of harvesting cucumbers is labour-intensive, uneconomical and uncomfortable. Farm vehicles called ‘cucumber flyers’ are used. These vehicles have two wing-like arms, where farm hands lie on their stomachs side-by-side and pick cucumbers as the vehicle trundles along. With the cost of hiring seasonal labourers going up, cucumbers are now often imported and rarely grown locally.

Now, a dual-arm robot has successfully been tested with the intention of keeping light crop cultivation a commercially viable option in Germany. CATCH, which stands for ‘Cucumber Gathering – Green Field Experiments’ is an EU-sponsored project. Using smart image processing, the robot arm can detect ripe cucumbers with 95% accuracy, while cutting-edge control mechanisms mean the robot can pick the fruit without damaging it.

“The robot can, for example, push leaves to the side using symmetrical or asymmetrical movements, or congruent and incongruent movements. As a result, it can automatically change directions on the fly to approach and then grasp a cucumber.”

—Dr Dragoljub Surdilovic, Scientist, Fraunhofer IP

There’s no doubting tomorrow’s workplace will be dramatically different to the one we’re used to now. It seems the first stages of an automated revolution involves robots replacing aspects within a job, rather than the job outright. It’s good news for anyone hoping to do less admin and more fulfilling work – though perhaps disappointing news for anyone hoping to replace their co-workers with a cobot instead.