Automation and the Future of Work

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Automation — it’s already having powerful and unmistakable effects on our lives, changing how we work, live, and play. It’s changing what’s in our pockets, in our cars, and on our minds. It’s changing how our children grow up and how our seniors grow old. And as technology continues to advance, its impact will only increase.

At Autodesk University in Las Vegas in November, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost tackled the issue of automation head on, addressing what it means for the AU community — in our daily lives and as professionals.

Leap of Opportunity or Valley of Dread?

Anagnost recognized the disruptions that automation will likely usher in. After all, automation brings change, and change brings the need to adapt. Experts estimate that 47% of jobs done by people today will be automated by 2050. The jobs of the future will be different than many of the jobs we do today — and they’ll go to those who have the necessary skills.

“Between each era of automation, there’s a gap,” Anagnost said. “It’s the space between the old and new economy. It’s where the skills you had in the past are not the same skills you’ll need in the future.”

“For some, that gap is a leap of opportunity,” Anagnost went on, “because technology and technical skills are readily accessible. But for others, it’s a valley of dread, because getting access to technology and skills training is either too complex or not available at all. As a result, entire communities are left behind.”

Ultimately, Anagnost sees automation enabling us to do more, do it better, and do it with less. According to Anagnost, automation will enable us to “win more projects, make more products, employ more people, [and achieve] better quality, better outcomes, and better profits. And we’ll do all of this with less time, less resources, and — most importantly — less negative impact on the world we live in.”

Doing More

While it isn’t hard to find hand-wringing about what automation means for those in today’s workforce, Anagnost pointed out that adapting to automation isn’t new — it’s been a fact of life since the first industrial revolution. And the number of jobs has only increased along the way. “Each era of automation, from the first industrial revolution through the present digital era, has created more jobs, not less,” Anagnost said. “Why should we assume the new machine age — the new era of automation — will be any different?”

He holds an optimistic vision for the automated future. “Instead of worrying about automation taking our jobs, why don’t we start thinking about where automation can take us?” he said. From France to the Netherlands to Greenville, South Carolina, he showed how “automation and jobs growth can co-exist.”

Anagnost invited Hilbrand Katsma from Van Wijnen to share his company’s success with automation. A leading mid-sized design-and-build firm in the Netherlands, Van Wijnen optimized their design and construction process, making it more like an industrial assembly line. By doing so, they’ve reduced the cost by 15% or more, and shortened the time-to-market from six months to three weeks. By bringing more automation to a traditional industry, they make more homes available for less money, putting the dream of home ownership within reach for more people.

They consider their homes to be “highly standardized products” that can be personalized to the wants of the customer. They can even be disassembled and reassembled as the client’s needs change. And they all achieve net-zero energy, meaning less impact on the environment. As Katsma put it, “It’s better for the customer, better for the community, and better for the environment.”

Watch Hilbrand Katsma from Van Wijnen share his company’s success with automation.

Doing Better

Anagnost was also joined by Pierre Maillot, senior technological advisor for the Bosch Group, who shared the remarkable story of their factory in Mondeville, France. Originally built for the manual assembly of televisions in the 1960s, it was retooled in the 80s and 90s to make electronics and other components for the automotive industry. In 2012, the Bosch team decided to renovate the factory once again to focus on creating components for consumer electronics and the Internet of Things.

This time, though, instead of aiming to put out millions of identical parts on fixed lines, they knew they needed to be able to manufacture more parts in smaller batches. By installing new digital tools into every part of their workshop, they were able to create a more flexible and agile facility that can profitably fabricate a variety of components for smaller niche markets. They call it “manufacturing-as-a-service.” In many ways, it’s manufacturing made better.

“By rethinking what it means to be a manufacturer and going after new markets, Bosch brought in more business,” Anagnost said. “They were able to keep more employees on the job in Mondeville, and that meant better opportunities for their workforce — new skills, new ways to work — and better relationships with their customers.”

Watch Pierre Maillot from Bosch with his story of their factory in Mondeville, France.

Doing It with Less

Anagnost sees reducing environmental impact as a top priority. That’s because our current industrial processes simply aren’t sustainable. The construction industry, he pointed out, “wastes 30% of its materials per project and is responsible for 40% of what we see in landfills.”

But it’s the growth in human population — and the growth in the middle class — that will ultimately strain our current capabilities. “The world population is going to increase to 10 billion by 2050 — that’s 2 billion more people than we have today,” Anagnost said. “And all those people are going to need more than we can possibly deliver in any sustainable way.” Automation will be necessary to meet those demands while preserving the world we live in.

Ultimately, doing more and doing it with less is what better means. Automation has made that possible for the past 200 years. Anagnost sees no reason it can’t do the same thing for the next 200.

Adaptability, Resiliency, and Community: Keys to Thriving in a World of Change

Anagnost sees adaptability, resiliency, and community as essential to success in our changing technological world.

“Adaptability is all about evolving your skills and learning new skills,” he said. “Resiliency is about finding the will and resolve to bounce back when technology starts to disrupt your business. And community means bringing people together — having a greater collective impact than one could have on their own.”

Through programs and partnerships, he said, Autodesk is “investing in adaptability, resiliency, and community so that anyone, anywhere, can navigate the gap and make anything in the new world of automation.”

“Autodesk is going to help all of you not only survive it, but thrive in it,” Anagnost said. “Our goal at Autodesk is to ensure that everyone gets the technology they need when they need it, so that all of us can make more, better, with less.”