Capitalising on the human in automation projects

Capitalising on the human in automation projects

‘Could a robot do my job?’

Google this phrase and you’ll get 4.6 million results, including calculators that estimate the chances of your job being ‘automated’.

Telemarketer? Insurance investigator? Bank teller? Your days are numbered.

A study by the Australian Office of the Chief Economist has suggested 44 per cent of all existing jobs could be automated — possibly by a robot, but most likely by a computer or computerised machine.

Jobs involving manual labour are already disappearing. The mining sector is following in the footsteps of the manufacturing sector by automating many of its processes, resulting in the disappearance of jobs.

I have worked for several years on major rail, mining and automation projects, and there’s no denying that job cuts have been painful. But my experience has also confirms how humans are irreplaceable in the workforce.

Manual job losses are being offset by gains in fields that require higher “human” skills, such as those involving analysis and social interaction.

According to the 2015 report 'Mechanical boon: will automation advance Australia?confirms that automation so far has not resulted in net job losses — companies have been employing fewer manual workers, but more workers in roles that demand perceptive, problem-solving, creative and social skills.

The mining projects I’ve worked on are a case in point of the “upskilling” that takes place amid automation. There is nothing automatic about creating an automated facility — a large numbers of highly skilled people are needed. Changes in processes and requirements are ‘normal’ -  even after a facility has been commissioned, and only humans have the perception and manipulation skills, the creative intelligence and the social intelligence to manage change.

Traditionally, you engineer a project up-front. You send off the design, you fabricate the parts, you get all the equipment together, you install it and commission it. But automation projects cycle through repeated rounds of analysis and change until a result is achieved. They’re iterative – like computer software.

Agility is vital to ensuring the best outcome — changes of scope are sudden and frequent, and you need to have the maturity to respond appropriately and consult with stakeholders. Robots can’t do this. .

Quite often, you’ll build something and it will look really good on paper, work really well in the factory, but once you’ve integrated it with five different machines, it doesn’t  work so well. You’ll be at 95 per cent complete on a project and then suddenly have another year’s work ahead of you.

This isn’t a design failing, but reflects human complexity. When you take the human out of the equation — for example, a crane operator — hundreds of variables need to be considered. These considerations would be largely intuitive to a human worker, such as, ‘Bill looks like he’s about to walk near a drop zone; I better stop.’ These variables interplay with the possible variations inherent in other tasks being automated.

Automation does not equal infallibility — as shown by a collision between an automated truck and a manual truck two years ago at a Western Australian mine. Automated trucks and robotic machines may be intelligent, but they still operate in a human world —where programmers and systems cannot necessary predict all events, companies can be sued, workers can be injured, laws can be broken and morals can be tested.

So effective, ongoing communication and change management is crucial. Companies taking on automation projects need to be prepared to do two (very human) things. They need to understand and communicate the technological and social complexities of automation — to their shareholders, their employees and their clients. And they must involve every stakeholder, right from the beginning.

Automation takes time – and investment to get it right. Notwithstanding the difficulties the long game is lower costs, increased competitiveness and profits.

To run a successful automation project companies need to be able to clearly explain the unknowns, the time delays and the significant upfront costs of iterative automation projects to their shareholders — as well as the significant profits to be made, from lower operating costs and improvements to productivity and quality.

Companies also need to be able to explain the benefits of automation to other stakeholders, particularly employees. Automation can make workers safer.  High risk tasks can be automated and where there is a worker/automation relationship injuries and accidents can be reduced, especially when tasks are repetitive.  

As a result of automation human workers canfocus on improvements and higher tasks. Instead of asking, ‘How will I pull this apart and fix this?’ maintenance facility workers ask questions such as ‘Why is this breaking? What can we do to prevent it? Can we create a better technique?’ Jobs in mining (and in general) are shifting from the manual to the analytical — including the need to be creative and problem-solve on the fly.

Don’t discount the big burly blokes who have been working with their hands all their lives — use them as mentors during automation projects. No one is in a better position to tell you whether or not a machine will do the job properly than someone who has been doing the job for the past 30 years. Observe them in action and have them sit in on a simulation and say ‘Well, that’s not going to work’ or ‘You’re going to have problems’. Hold on to them in the longer term too, so you don’t lose that precious knowledge.

Key operators are among several stakeholders that companies must engage, right from the beginning, to ensure their end product is fit-for-purpose and that as many safety implications as possible have been considered.

No matter how good the technology is, you’re always going to need people  to consider all the possible permutations. You need to have extensive brainstorming sessions and risk reviews, with the full gamut of stakeholders, to make sure you’ve considered the problem from every possible angle. This includes your operators — you need to employ them early, almost at the design stage, and bring them along for the ride as you fine-tune and troubleshoot. It’s also a good idea too to throw someone separate into the equation – someone who isn’t in the project, who is not personally attached to it.

All this doesn’t just help companies develop automation projects, it helps them to understand and manage the complexities inherent in automation in the long-term. It helps them value and invest in agility, and value and invest in human skills.

There is a lot of brouhaha around automation, but Australia’s experience with automation so far has shown that automation doesn’t equal net unemployment. Automation isn’t killing jobs, it’s creating and changing them.

We have seen in mining that even after an automation facility is commissioned, people are still needed to perceive, analyse and use their social intelligence to make the place work —to ensure it fits the purpose, remains safe and competitive and meets ever-changing legal, regulatory and industrial requirements. There have also been significant flow-on effects, boosting jobs in education, training, communications and technology.

Far from making us redundant, automation demands more of us. It demands more brains and less brawn. High-level human skills have never been in more demand. This is something to be celebrated, not feared.

Written by Matthew Howard, Project and Closeout Manager

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