Automating the Automotive

Perhaps in light of the impending closures of gm plants in the us, i’ve been turning thoughts and attention a lot more towards robotics and disruptive technology lately.

By Carter Hammett

Automation’s time is upon us and its potential impact on jobs and the labour market concerns me more than a few plant closures. If you don’t think so, start looking at the retail sector. Already, stores like Walmart are investing in scan-and-go technology. Amazon Go currently has six “cashier-less” convenience stores in three different US cities, and the concept has al-
most become mainstream throughout Asia with C-stores like BingoBox leading the way. According to Automationmag.com, global robot investment hit $16.5 billion in the last year. While robotic shipments are expected to take a dip this year, they’re forecast to rebound by 12% between next year and 2022.

The automotive sector is the single largest adopter of robots world-wide totalling 30% of the total supply. The drive towards modernization and increased capacity for vehicle production are the key reasons for a higher demand for robots. About 79% of all robot installations occurred in five markets, with China leading the way followed by Japan, Germany, the United States and Korea. Interestingly, India, considered the world’s fourth-largest vehicle producer, only had about 2,100 robots installed within its automotive sector.

A McKinsey Global Institute study released in 2017 estimated that up to 375 million workers around the world might have to consider switching professions by 2030 because of automation advancements. It’s estimated that about 57% of the 1.4 million jobs that will be disrupted between now and 2026 will be held by women.

Tesla executives forecast that their electric vehicles will be built entirely by robots. While some people’s roles will shift to managing the actual robots, other human-staffed jobs will deal with maintaining the machines, managing upgrades and problem solving. The production process will essentially be people-free.

Other companies don’t appear to share that vision. Last year a BNN Bloomberg story shed light on Honda’s production facilities in Ohio, where humans and machines work side-by-side. Robots generally handle most of the painting and welding as they do in many other production facilities. The story reported that a new weld shop was installed with 342 robots to create the Accord’s metal body. Automation levels hadn’t changed that much however, when it came to installing motors, wheels and interior trim parts.

Robots were also used to lift rear suspensions into the bottom of the car, aided by humans who applied bolts and brackets on the suspension. The work is considered too dexterous for robots. But robots can make substantial contributions in areas like cutting fabric, polishing molds and trimming flashes from plastic mouldings. Robots are making inroads in coating and sealing, as well as tasks that are considered more risky for people.

In a study published last year, the C.D. Howe Institute assessed the readiness of workers to face technological shifts on a province-by-province basis. The study concluded that the more economically diverse the province, the better the chances of successful adaption. Jobs including service station attendants and motor vehicle assemblers were among the jobs most likely to be impacted the study concluded. The provinces most likely to be impacted included New Brunswick and Newfoundland, while those least impacted included BC and Ontario.

While it’s natural to assume that the first reaction to these changes imply job loss, opportunities to learn new skills are also expected to develop. It’s worth noting that robots will most likely never remove people from jobs requiring critical thinking, creativity or emotional management skills. Whatever the future holds, technological advances are predicted to have significant impact within the next decade. Workers would do well to consider developing new skills now as we remind ourselves that the only real constant is change.

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