As is usually the case with new technologies, early renderings are directed at the general consumer. Drones, for example, first hit the market as little more than an extravagant toy. The potential they had for industries such as construction, architecture and surveillance were only realised later.
The same, it can be argued, can be said for automation. Take telephones, by 1930 nearly a third of all Bell systems had become automatic and it was a move, in a large part, to allow greater and easier connectivity between normal people. With any technological innovation though, if it doesn’t immediately catch the attention of business and industry, it’s not long before it does.
The rise of automation in industry
In the introduction to this piece, we said it ‘could be argued’ that automation is an example of technological innovation with the general consumer as the initial target. The reason we used this expression, is because it could equally be argued that automation has just as often primarily had a commercial focus.
If we look back to when the Industrial Revolution had converted much of Britain to red brick tapestries of noisy mills and factories, innovations such as fully automated spinning mills driven by water power and centrifugal governors which controlled the speed of engines, were already unleashing the power of early automation. These mechanisms and others like them, reduced the need for manpower but more importantly ramped up production levels.
The advent of the computer age revealed a new breed of automation. One built on wires and motherboards, instead of axles and cogs. It has since taken processing and production to heights unimaginable in the centuries that preceded it. There are professions today that because of further advances in automation, didn’t exist even ten years ago. Not only is it creating new working practices, it is revolutionising existing ones. Here, we look at some examples.
The traditional working practices revolutionised by automation
Customer service – More so for larger organisations, customer service functions can easily become financial black holes. They often require large teams for whom money needs to be invested in training and wages, not to mention that even the most accomplished of customer service professionals can become embroiled in conflicts with those they serve.
Automation is beginning to chip away at these issues by allowing the computers to take over. Touch screen menus in fast food restaurants that let customers choose and even pay for their meal before receiving it at the counter are commonplace. So too are self-service checkouts in the larger supermarkets. Call centres which deal with incoming customer calls are increasingly manned by next-generation chatbots that can detect customer tone and key words and phrases to satisfactorily deal with problems.
Highway management – Even in the most developed countries, the highways have been something of a lawless place. But for static speed cameras and randomly deployed patrol cars, there has been precious little to stop excessive speeding, industry-halting traffic jams, and risk to human life.
Enter the Smart Motorway. Fit with sensors which measure traffic volumes, these sensors then calculate optimum speeds to reduce flows and send them to LED displays alerting drivers to the revised max speed. This information is also relayed to cameras positioned at regular intervals which monitor average speeds and issue penalty notices to drivers who contravene them.
The workload this reduces for those whose job it is to manage the highways is formidable. As is the time returned to industry as fewer traffic jams translates to less late arrivals to the workplace.
Finance – If any industry is harvesting the fruits of automation, it’s finance. Treasurers, for example, have traditionally been prevented from adding optimum value to their organisations by becoming trapped in a cycle of spending the bulk of their time gathering data. Automated tools now exist that perform the painstaking and laborious process of data collation quickly and accurately so more time can be spent analysing it. This coupled with advances in real-time banking has meant that the contemporary treasurer is able to concentrate on improving bottom lines, rather than clicking through endless spreadsheets.
The banking sector is also riding the crest of automation, utilising an array of automation tools to streamline and enhance operations. One of the biggest challenges facing banks has been the need to process, control and analyse vast volumes of unstructured and fluctuant data. Automation tools are not only simultaneously processing big data, they also eliminate human error. This impacts positively on a range of areas such as risk management, trade monitoring, contract, compliance and regulation intelligence, and intelligent cash management.
Sales – The days of call centres lined with salespeople sat at desks, telephones glued to hands, ringing mindlessly through reams of numbers, trying to sell products and services to people who’ve never asked for them are, fortunately, all but over. It was a practice that was rarely pleasant for either the seller, or the one being sold to.
Today, automation tools are available that protect valuable time by filtering only the most promising leads and further advancements have the potential to make screening processes even more accurate, improving both customer experience and the rate at which conversions are made.
The technology can also tackle necessary but time-consuming manual tasks such as prefilling onerous underwriting questions that are needed to generate quotes. With much of the required underwriting information in the public domain, automated tools can collate this data, easing business relationships for both the prospect and company, and assists in closing more deals in less time.
HR – Certainly for large organisations, recruitment drives that involve hiring hundreds, even thousands of employees create backlogs for HR that can rapidly become unmanageable. Working through stacks of cover letters and CVs cuts into time departments could be using more productively. For those organisations moving towards automated solutions, much of this burden can be relieved.
Chatbots, which grow in sophistication with every new expression, are able to perform basic background checks to immediately filter out those candidates who do not possess the desired skills and experience. Meanwhile, other AI tools can be programmed to look for specific qualifications.
Where is automation headed next?
A million-dollar question if ever there was one. What new automation innovations will look like and the tasks they’ll be to perform is subject to much discussion and conjecture. Perhaps the more pertinent question is; what will these further advancements mean for the people whose work they replace?
It is absolutely plausible that the shop floors and offices of the future will find few, if any real people. As populations increase and further jobs become swallowed up by ever more intelligent and sophisticated systems, governments and business leaders are faced with an existential quandary; how are those people replaced by computers protected from economic harm? As we currently enjoy the financial and safety benefits of automation, it is an issue that is bubbling away in the background and answers need to start being found before it boils over completely.