The robots are coming.
It sounds like a line from a B-grade science fiction movie, but the rise of robots is a reality for businesses of all shapes and sizes. Automation technologies are making their way into the workplace and the ramifications for both employers and employees are huge.
If you think the small business community is immune to automation, think again. What does robotic technology mean for small businesses? And how should small business owners respond?
Robots are changing the workplace
Automation technology (i.e. actual robotic devices and artificial intelligence software) is expected to replace a significant segment of the human workforce in the not-so-distant future. By 2030, robots could occupy 38 percent of jobs in the U.S. economy, according to recent research by PwC.
Much of the buzz about robotics involves the potential benefits for large enterprises. By investing in automated workforces, large companies hope to boost productivity, manage labor costs and improve operational predictability.
But large corporations aren't the only workplaces that will be affected by robots. While automation will undoubtedly change all industries in one way or another, the near-term impact will be most apparent in transportation and storage, manufacturing, retail and other industries that are common across the small business community.
Ready or not, automation is coming to small businesses. The problem is that many small business owners aren't aware of the changes these technologies will bring to their companies.
What small business owners need to know about workplace automation
The state of automation technology is advancing in leaps and bounds. In fact, it's advancing so rapidly that artificial intelligence - technology that allows machines to learn through observation - is already present in the technology ecosystems of forward-thinking enterprises.
It's true that small businesses often lag behind enterprises in new technology adoption and we're still a few years away from wide-scale adoption of AI and sophisticated automation solutions. But robotic and automation technologies will enter the small business workplace sooner than you think. Here are several things small business owners need to know to prepare for the opportunities automation technologies will bring to their companies.
- Some jobs are easier to automate than others.
Robotic technology will never fully replace human activity in the workplace, especially for certain job types. In the artificial intelligence field, it's widely believed that the coming generation of technologies will augment and enhance the work of human employees by providing insights that are difficult or impossible for human beings to capture.
But artificial intelligence aside, jobs that require creativity or a unique perspective are the most difficult to automate, while easily defined and repetitive activities are ripe for automation. For example, many companies are already using robots to replace human workers in the warehouse, since warehouses are physically predictable work environments where workers perform repetitive activities.
- Automation technologies are becoming more affordable for small businesses.
One of the common misconceptions about robotic technology is that it's unaffordable for small businesses. While large robotic implementations are expensive, the price tag on smaller, more manageable pieces of robotic hardware are well within the reach of most small business owners.
In the manufacturing sector, small operations can implement industrial robots that work alongside humans for as little as $25,000. Going forward, it's expected that the cost of advanced robotics will continue to drop, making even more complex automation a feasible expense for small businesses.
Beyond robotics, automation is also showing up in the retail and service sectors in the form of self-service technology. The combination of readily deployed touch screen interfaces with POS systems that accept a variety of payment methods from credit cards to smart phone enabled digital wallets have made customer self-service increasingly more common. This can have an obvious impact on staffing requirements as customers can meet an increasing percentage of their informational and transactional needs through these self-serve kiosks.
- The decision to implement automation technologies is complicated.
Cost and work activity aren't the only variables to consider when deciding whether or not to introduce robots or automation into your small business workplace. Regulatory concerns also factor into the equation. Although some industries are using automated software to improve compliance, the use of robots raises serious legal concerns in many industries. For example, in the healthcare industry a majority of patients are in favor of automation technology. But the industry itself lacks an appropriate legal and regulatory framework for automation technologies.
Another factor to consider is whether or not the activity in question requires a human touch. Many companies have already replaced receptionists and customer service representatives with automated technology solutions. But if your small business relies on the development of long-term relationships with customers, automating these activities may be counter-productive - even though the technology to do so is available and affordable.
Is your business ready for robots?
Even though the technology landscape is changing quickly, it will probably be a few years before robotic technology is commonplace in small businesses. But it's not too soon to begin the process of preparing your business for automation.
Start by determining which roles and activities are good candidates for automating with technology. Keep in mind that automation technology doesn't have to replace human workers - in many cases, robots help humans work faster and more effectively.
It's also helpful to explore the various ways automation is being used in your industry. Armed with insights about the potential use cases for automation, you can begin to develop a budget to acquire key technologies over the next several years.
For small business owners, the benefits of automation go beyond operational efficiency. Going forward, companies that are prepared for an automated future will command higher prices in the business-for-sale marketplace. So, by laying the groundwork for automation now, you can achieve better outcomes for your business in the short term and later, when you eventually decide to exit the company.