There is an urgent need to prepare work-floor employees for working alongside a new generation of smart robots, says Josje Verbeeten, managing director and co-owner of Robot Academy, the training agency which was set up with the support of robot employment agency Smart Robotics and the province of Noord-Brabant. Ensuring that the province is robot-ready is a gradual process, though, and Verbeeten says the question remains whether employers are willing to allocate training budget to workers who in many cases are on temporary contracts.
In setting up Robot Academy 18 months ago, she commissioned research amongst 300 companies in the province to establish how far they are in the adoption of robots in the production process, and to hear what their related needs are. One of the outcomes from this research was evidence that companies need the training to ensure that the transition involved in the innovation process is a healthy one, with sustainably positive outcomes.
Being mindful about adding robots
“I visited different factories and met stackers and packers from different countries and backgrounds who were unaware of their jobs being threatened. At the same time, it was clear that management saw robots like another tool being introduced, without considering the impact on their most important asset, the human employee. All of these innovative changes have consequences for the workforce, and it is vital that HR consider what the changes will mean for the atmosphere on the work-floor and for organisational processes,” Verbeeten says
She is full of optimism about the future of work with collaborative robots – cobots – and describes how the project captivated her from the start. “Eighteen months ago it was very new; I had an instant fascination and jumped into it. I believe in the power of robots – to improve working conditions, to take over increasingly complex work”.
Getting the best out of innovation
Preparing employees who may be resistant, uncertain or fearful about the future of working with robots will be important in speeding up the innovation which is enabled through the technology. “Robots can be a solution where it is difficult to find the right skills or to replace dull and dirty jobs. Physically challenging work does not fit a time when there is an increase in the need for sustainable work. Besides, robots make it possible to include those with a physical disability”.
Robot Academy focuses its training on management as well as technical employees: For management and HR, it is about creating awareness and providing inspiration for company policy. For production employees, including operators, cleaners and administrative colleagues, it is about creating awareness, building experience and stimulating thinking about extending knowledge, Verbeeten explains.
“I visited different factories and met stackers and packers from different countries and backgrounds who were unaware of their jobs being threatened. At the same time, it was clear that management saw robots like another tool being introduced.”