My Best Friend, The Robot
It’s no secret that people are generally afraid of automation in the workplace. In the first industrial revolution, the luddites broke textile machinery they worried would leave them redundant. Even today, there remains a fear that it’s going to take jobs and leave humans bereft. Unions are making warnings and workers who interact with robots have been seen to sabotage them.
It’s also true that the introduction of new technologies, such as Robotic Process Automation (RPA), will remove the need for humans to undertake repetitive and dull tasks. In this process, software operates a computer, mouse and keyboard like a human – but virtually. It’s like having a digital junior colleague who can do rules-based tasks, ranging from simple to more complex, that you’ve taught it to do.
But this should be welcomed, as it frees people to focus on fewer drudgeries and more interesting and satisfying work. Moreover, automation and related emergent technologies such as AI and Machine Learning are already creating and will keep on creating many more positions, often allowing the person who did a multitude of manual repetitive tasks to get a promotion and do something more exciting.
This begs the question, how can employers introduce software in a way that tells the full story about the benefits of automation and helps people embrace the opportunities it offers? It may sound silly, but perhaps the most powerful yet simple thing within the power of any employer is to give the robots who enter our offices names. Grace, Lucy, Chris... Balthazar! Anything people might relate to.
What’s in a name?
Let’s face it, the term robot – let alone the complicated and abstract phrase Robotic Process Automation – may sound a bit cold and intimidating, making many of us feel uncomfortable.
It’s no wonder that when the concept of automation is introduced to people in the workplace, it often gets off to a bad start. They either have a preconceived negative idea of what it means, or have no idea what it might actually be and instantly feel defensive.
Let’s then consider if instead of telling employees that software robots will be introduced to the office, we started off by telling a story about a woman called Alice who was stressed at work. Every day, she spent an hour and a half creating and sending out a survey to customers. It was time-intensive, dull and over the duration of a year, took weeks of time. Her boss noticed how stressed she was and decided to hire her an assistant who could do it for her, leaving Alice with time to do the more useful and interesting things she was originally taken on for, like making sense of the responses from the survey.
And what if we gave Alice’s junior colleague a name? He’s Oliver. His birthday is 3rd November and he doesn’t mind doing night shifts so that when Alice comes in each day, there is a list of the stuff he managed to do in the small hours that Alice used to dread trying to fit into her day. I’ll be honest, Oliver sounds pretty good to me. Isn’t it most people’s ambition to hire a junior and step up?
Of course, you could have just told Alice that a software robot would be taking over some of her tasks because it can do them more quickly and we’re all sick of looking at Alice’s sulky face as she does that damn survey she keeps moaning about. I know what I’d prefer to hear – and I know what version I would probably respond more positively to.
We’ve seen this use of storytelling in literature and cinema too. If you give a robot a human narrative and name, they become far less frightening. Who doesn’t like Star Wars’ plucky R2-D2, or the eternally camp C-3PO? Yes, it’s just a mix of letters and numbers, but when spoken, they sound like real names. Luke Skywalker even shortened R2-D2 to simply “R2” – a bit like the Polish pronunciation of Arthur.
Then, for anyone who grew up in the 80s, there’s Johnny 5 from Short Circuit, The Fix-Its from Batteries Not Included (so cute), or for anyone with kids, what about Baymax from Big Hero or the eponymous Wall-E? Or in the business world, what about IBM’s Watson?
If you give a robot a relatable name and meaningful story, it becomes understandable and welcomed. In fact, it becomes less of a robot and more of a colleague, albeit one without consciousness and sentience, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.
The point is, as soon as a name is introduced, a personality is born. Instead of the “scary software that is taking work from me”, it becomes “Oliver, who works through the night to make my day more productive”.
It’s a brutally simple idea – the best ones normally are – yet it taps into the human mind in a complex and powerful way. It perhaps stems from an anthropomorphic urge all people have to attribute human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities.
It’s considered to be an innate tendency of our psychology. It’s understood to have ancient roots as a storytelling and artistic device, and most cultures have traditional fables with anthropomorphised animals as characters. In the 21st century, we’re now learning to anthropomorphise robots as characters in our working stories.
Can I speak to Solly, please?
Many of our clients have already found out just how powerful naming robots can be. One particular automation lead at a professional services firm says we need to make software robots part of the team so colleagues don’t see them as a threat. In his view, it’s all part of personifying the software to make something abstract and difficult to understand, relatable and friendly – just like a new workmate.
He once told me a story about his first ever robot colleague. He created her in 2000 and she was called Solly. She was involved with a legal database and sent out text and email notifications to let people know where they were with the case. Solly became part of the team. She used to send out emails and sign off with her name. The team would get calls into the office asking for Solly and he had to explain that Solly was a robot. Now he runs naming competitions for his software robots.
Another client named one of his software robots Archie, after an employee’s son, and another Marley, after a colleague’s dog. All his firm’s automations are named by the person who comes up with the idea. He says it’s, “A kind of sweetener for staff, I think it just helps with welcoming the robot into the team.”
The power of language
It just goes to show the power of words and the way they make us think and act. The emotional reaction language can engender is astounding. Which is why we shouldn’t overlook its ability to solve complex, deep-rooted problems. Such as the fear of robots – specifically, the worry that they or RPA, will come and take our jobs.
It’s understandable that people are worried. But with a simple technique, we can make a big difference. With a name and a story, you never know, we might even see robots becoming people’s best mates.
Upgrading RFID and Automated Track and Trace Solutions
During the COVID-19 pandemic, global supply chains faced the challenge of rapidly adjusting their business priorities to new customer preferences. Local supplier backlogs, winter storms, and the Suez Canal backup in March underscored the need for efficiency and visibility across the supply chain.
According to Christof Backhaus, Digital Lead Product Supply and Smart Label Project Lead at Bayer, companies must now place critical importance on tracking and tracing their products. “All large enterprises in the world dealing with finished goods,” he said, “seek functional and technical solutions to real-time channel inventory.”
Indeed, RFID’s real-time tracking data allows executives to make quick, well-informed decisions in moments of supply chain crisis - and rather than unfolding across days or weeks, it only takes a matter of minutes.
Why does RFID remain relevant despite digital disruption?
Essentially, RFID uses radio frequency waves to transfer data wirelessly between a scanner and a tag. In contrast to barcode technology, which requires a stationary scanner, RFID tags can be pinged from anywhere in the world, allowing companies to track real-time movement through the supply chain. RFID tags can also scan unique SKU numbers and distinguish between varying product sizes, colours, and styles: a critical feature for increasingly personalised end-user products.
Though the first patent for RFID tags appeared in 1973, higher accuracy rates, lower costs, and advances in sensor and data technology have made it newly accessible to a wide range of companies. Today, the technology is used in logistics networks, manufacturing and delivery networks in the pharmaceutical industry, and any business where efficiently tracking and monitoring product location is critical: raw materials, consumer products, cars, electronics, retail, and agriculture.
What are the key benefits?
Overall, automated track and trace solutions keep labour costs low, optimise operating costs, mitigate security risks, use capital effectively, and assist companies in adhering to regulatory requirements.
Below are three in-depth dives into how RFID benefits major industries:
- Pharmaceuticals: RFID tags help manufacturers safeguard sensitive products such as vaccines, tracking where they are and when they will arrive in real-time. Sensors closely monitor temperatures to ensure regulatory compliance. If anyone tampers with a shipment, the sensors alert the company.
- Logistics: RFID identifies process gaps and frequent anomalies by monitoring a product’s lifecycle from shipment to delivery. This data helps decision-makers predict the most efficient routes and therefore optimise their distribution schedules.
- Retail: Sensors help guard shipments against theft and provide critical intelligence when shipments go missing. Before adopting RFID technology in 2203, UK retailer Marks and Spencer relied on barcodes to scan inventory. When they made the switch, their productivity increased from a maximum of 400-600 items scanned per hour to up to 15,000 items scanned per hour. Building on their initial success, the retailer expanded the use of the technology and is still using it today.
Regardless of the industry, RFID promotes accuracy, immediacy, and efficiency. Companies reduce human error by automatically scanning products, keep track of inventory even in geographic locations with poor connectivity, and help streamline warehouse operations by identifying exact product locations.
Which recent innovations have changed the game?
With recent developments in cloud technology and IoT, a multitude of cloud-based alternatives have emerged to challenge traditional RFID technology. One of these cutting-edge solutions is Sony’s Smart Label - an intelligent shipping label that runs on AT&T’s global cellular network.
As with any good innovation, Sony’s proprietary technology started with a customer need ready to be solved: the Bayer Crop Science Division lacked an international IoT solution that could track seed products from start to finish throughout its distribution channel. Millions of dollars of revenue stood at stake, so Bayer turned to Sony to develop a smart label that would set the organisation up to manage its supply chain with end-to-end visibility.
Sony’s printable and disposable adhesive label allows companies to track the condition and location of their products worldwide and act upon the vast amounts of data it collects. The process is simple: the label activates when attached to the package, connects to AT&T’s secure LTE-M network, and sends data to the Smart Label Cloud in real time.
In sharp contrast to other smart label solutions that place trust in a patchwork combination of Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification, and other limited coverage connections, the Sony Smart Label connects solely through a secure and universally-available cellular network. “Working with Sony,” says Robert Boyanovsky, the vice president of Mobility, IoT and 5G at AT&T, “we provide full visibility of every item shipped.”
Most importantly for companies on the edge, the Smart Label integrates with existing enterprise systems to achieve full visibility, thus adding value without disrupting supply chain process flow.
Why is this important now?
Companies that previously delayed introducing RFID and other automated track-and-trace technologies can capitalise on recent developments that lower costs, improve accuracy, and supercharge traceability.
Clearly the technology has value in today’s uncertain global marketplace, and can help decrease the costs of tracking goods. To quote Christof Backhaus, the Project Lead at Bayer, “the Smart Label indicates how much product is in the market, from the packaging line to the end customer.” Companies no longer have to spend a small fortune to take advantage of recent IoT developments. “Due to the technical composition [of the label],” Backhaus explains, “we don’t require additional infrastructure, manual scanning, or other expensive tools.”
Over the decades since RFID was first introduced, support for introducing it to company supply chains has also improved. AT&T’s IoT Professional Services Organisation, for example, supports companies through the end-to-end design and integration process--from installation to deployment and project management.
Companies that invest in traceable and visible supply chain solutions stand the best chance of survival, adjusting in real-time to natural disasters, shipping backups, and slowed-down supplier turnarounds as a result of the global pandemic. “Smart Label promises to help businesses like Bayer realise the full potential of the IoT,” says AT&T’s Boyanovsky. “[We can] deliver improvements in revenue and cost savings and make supply chains more efficient.”
Certainly, company executives will be hard-pressed to ignore recent innovations. In an age of uncertainty, RFID and its challengers herald a welcome sense of supply chain security. The next step? “Our sales team,” Boyanovsky adds, “is prepared to engage with prospective customers now.”