May 17, 2017

Machines are taking over the workplace. Namely, automation is coming to businesses of all kinds, large and small. By 2025, approximately 1.2 million machines will be used to carry out a variety of tasks in the United States. During that time, an additional 25 percent of all tasks in manufacturing that can be automated will be. As prices decrease and machines become smaller and easier to use, they will be widely deployed, some of them in places where humans once stood. In the next eight years, 22 percent of human workers in the manufacturing industry will be replaced with machines. And that’s just the beginning.

As automation becomes more affordable and accessible, it moves out of the factories and into small businesses. There is a lot of potential for automation of white and blue collar jobs by software and robots respectively.
Software Automation

Though automation has often been said to be the key to the future, the limited resources of small business often provides a barrier of entry to automation. Many of these businesses are too small to invest in expanding their operations to automate their processes, but too large to afford to limit themselves to operating on a case-by-case basis. Businesses like this need to be able to find a balance between the use of human employees and automatic processes. The key is often to make the most of employees’ time by automating the small stuff, letting the workers focus on the important parts of the process.

Robot caught coding
Source: Steve Jurvetson

Canadian company L’Envol des Langues provides language courses for corporate users, and were able to streamline their processes through software automation. To do this, they focused on two especially inefficient departments: Operations and Accounting. In the Operations department, all emails to participants were sent out manually, a process that was inconsistent and often resulted in errors. In Accounting, billing was handled by five employees every month and took fifteen days to get through; this often resulted in billing and cash inflow delays.

To streamline these departments, LDL chose to automate the most error-prone and time-consuming processes. Emails are now created and sent automatically with all the correct information. Monthly billing now takes two people five days to complete. Filing is also done automatically. Not only have these measures helped the company operate faster and more smoothly, they have reduced by the volume of paper used by LDL by 70 percent.

Physical Automation
Automation doesn’t just come in the form of software. Due to advances in the robotics industry, physical automation is becoming more and more feasible for small- and medium-sized businesses. The company SMERobotics has created several projects that showcase this potential:

• Assembly – A flexible dual-arm setup can carry out a wide variety of assembly tasks. By combining CAD models with human feedback, the machine is able to adapt to what is in front of it.
• Cooperation with Humans – Using CAD models for guidance, a large gantry machine handles, connects, and cuts building materials alongside human workers who are constructing prefab wooden houses. It can also take advantage of human feedback, altering its actions if instructed to in case something goes wrong.

• Welding – A machine intended to assist with welding uses a camera to scan the parts it’s working with. It then constructs a three-dimensional model of the part, locating the different welding seams. The operator then provides feedback that refines the production sequence.

Meanwhile, in the publishing industry, TLAC Toronto Printing and Publishing uses an automated book binder that emulates a human hand as it clamps, glues, and stitches books. The machine uses design files created by humans to create a prototype book, then uses that process to bind a large number of books. TLAC’s five employees work in conjunction with the binder to print, cut, and bind their books while ensuring the best in quality and efficiency.

PLC Programming Education
The replacement of small business jobs by machines may sound like a bad thing, but it opens up opportunities in other areas. There will be a need for PLC programmers to help design and build these systems. Online technology courses like those in George Brown College’s PLC Programming program can give workers the tools they need to ensure that they always have a job in the brave new world of automation.

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