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Last Updated : Dec 07, 2019 10:58 AM IST | Source: Moneycontrol.com

Robots are not just taking away jobs, they are making life tougher for staff

Malfunctioning robots are slowly becoming a challenge to automating workplaces

Aiming to make work simpler for its warehouse workers, an e-commerce firm recently imported 800 robots from Tokyo to handle storage of delivery products.

However, the opposite has happened. This because the robots would be in place to collect a set of identical products before the other set of items could be brought for storage. If left idle for more than 10 minutes, the robot was programmed to shut the storage gates because it presumed the work is over.

Often leading to panic among staff, errors are common. To reopen the gate to the storage area is a process that takes 30-40 minutes involving the system to be reactivated after taking permission from the site manager. During discount season, it is a nightmare if the gates shut.

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"Once the storage gates are shut, it is a complicated process to reopen the doors and vital time gets wasted. Hence we have to rush back to get packages quickly and in this process, some products are labelled incorrectly," SV Ramana, a warehouse member who also doubles up as a delivery staff, said.

Labelling and sorting is done by the staff while the robots' job is to take the product and place it in the storage unit depending on the product type and weight.

Injuries are also common because workers run with multiple packages that are very heavy. Heavy lifting to meet the capabilities of the robots causes back and leg injuries. Staff also do not get leaves to recoup since the robots work 24/7.

Getting robots to make the workplace activities simpler has replaced basic roles. But it is also leading to rising work pressures for the staff who work with such machines.

It is not just e-commerce firms that are dealing with this situation, but anecdotal evidence from across sectors shows that this is indeed the case across India.

At a retail outlet that set up a robot checkout unit for customers, the card used for swiping either get stuck inside or hand damaged, or non-barcoded products could not be differentiated.

This led to rising queues at the cash counters and a trained personnel was appointed only to manage this technology. Eventually, the robot checkout had to be dispensed with.

Retail could do away with robots and get humans back on the job, but skilled labour is in short supply in sectors like BFSI.

In the banking sector, for instance, making a cash operations officer look at whether a robot is sorting currency properly could be a waste of resources. But that is what seems to be happening.

At a Mumbai-based bank, an official has been made to re-sort cash because the robot performing the role was unable to segregate soiled notes.

This, he said, wastes at least 40-50 minutes every day, taking away from his core duty of maintaining cash across the branches and ATMs. He admits that the robot did amuse him and his colleagues for a few weeks, but eventually turned out to be a pain.

The 'amusement' factor is what also gets a lot of customer-facing industries like hospitality and dining use robots to grab eyeballs.

A south-based restaurant chain scored high on the 'wow factor' by getting a robot to serve food. But the machine's handling was not as smooth as they imagined it to be.

Once the food was served by a robot, specific instructions were difficult to process. For instance, when a vegetarian sought a change in order when served chicken fried rice, he did not expect that merely the chicken pieces would be removed and the robot would get the same dish again. His instructions were 'no chicken in rice'.

Is the robot quick? Yes.

Effective? Not 100 percent.

Various estimates suggest that robots could replace 20-30 million jobs over the next 10-15 years. This will be mundane, repetitive tasks that do not require human intervention. However, in reality, it looks like each robot will need another person to handle its inaccuracies/defaults.

Positions like robotic handler are also becoming common to ensure that robots work without any major glitches.

A Delhi-based hospital chain now has house-keeping staff monitoring a cleaning robot because it often hit patients or damaged expensive medical equipment. Considering that there is a shortage of housekeeping staff and cleaning is a priority, the robot could not be replaced.

It is a fact that robots are quicker and help save huge costs in a factory environment. These machines are also helpful in manufacturing settings where exposure to toxic chemicals is high. However, there is a cost attached to using them.

Having one dedicated individual to handle robots creates jobs, but the idea of having a machine is to ensure that the robot replaces a human. Getting robots to non-factory environments is only turning out to be counter-productive.

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First Published on Dec 7, 2019 10:58 am
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