What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time we were writing about robots as a long-term play. Something you had to watch and consider, but maybe not on your immediate radar. We asked: Should robots be in your strategic plan for 2013? Now, in 2014, the answer is a decisive yes!
Last year I wrote:
“The signs are all pointing to mainstream business use of robotics in the very near future. Gartner analyst Jackie Fenn told Smart Enterprise Exchange that “IT staffs should expect employees or business units to introduce robots into the enterprise, so robots should also be a part of your consumerization plans and initiatives.”
Are you prepared for the swift progress that’s taking place? Beyond the much-touted autonomous cars and vacuum cleaners — and even Amazon’s widely reported use of package-delivery drones — mainstream manufacturing businesses, such as Toyota and Tesla, are using industrial robots for parts assembly and other tasks, and additional industry sectors are jumping in as well. The TechNavio research firm recently forecast that the global service robotics market will grow at a compound annual rate of 19.05 percent from 2012 to 2016. One of the key drivers is the increasing demand of professional robots for medical applications, according to the report.
As an example, a business unit of the Henry Ford Health System in February announced it will invest in and partner with the Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Center to develop new digital health and robotic solutions to improve patient outcomes and transitional care after hospitalization. Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute will be a key R&D partner working on this initiative to develop “assistive robotics” that pair humans and with robotic aides. [Photo shows robotic surgery at Henry Ford Hospital].
Separately, Google is also reportedly acquiring robotic technology and talent, and is working with Foxconn on new robotics and software for manufacturing and assembly.
What does it all mean for IT leaders? As I also wrote previously, technology and the economy are at a crossroads on the issue of automation. CIOs — as both technology and business leaders — must encourage and support robotic efforts to keep their businesses competitive. At the same time, the U.S. government must addresses potential job loss and economic impacts. As Gartner’s Fenn noted: "CIOs and IT managers should consider mobile robots as a way to automate tasks, ... engage users and extend human capabilities.”
When the book Race Against the Machine was first published in 2011, it sparked conversation and debate about what automation can achieve and how it will affect jobs and the economy. This year, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s new, highly acclaimed book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, is taking the discussion even further.
Considering the Challenges
It’s not the gee-whiz factor of Google cars or intelligent robots that’s generating the most attention. It’s what the authors call the “thorny challenges” and choices we face as a result of digital disruption, such as job displacement, economic shifts and deep-rooted cultural and social change. CIOs should be leading these discussions along with conversations about automation technology and its impact on the business.
Some of the disruption may come from business process automation (BPA), not robotics, and might seem more mundane. For example, everyday processes such as expense reporting, invoicing and employment reviews are among the areas where organizations are using digital technology to move away from paper and manual processes, CompTIA’s Trends in Workforce Automation and Communications study finds. That’s why business process automation is making inroads with smaller businesses, as reported here. Three-fourths of small firms (fewer than 100 employees) surveyed by CompTIA have seen a significant or moderate increase in their use of BPA technology over the past two years
And the impact is far from mundane. “Technology is no longer functioning in a simple support role, but is increasingly used to meet business objectives and drive differentiation,” Seth Robinson, director of technology analysis at CompTIA, reports. “Companies with aggressive technology adoption mindsets are able to advance to process-level issues and create competitive advantage.”
What is your mindset regarding robotics? Are you convinced yet that robotics should be the next digital technology included in your 2014 IT plan—and beyond? What initiatives are you involved with?
Editor and Community Manager
Smart Enterprise Exchange