While large organizations have been investing heavily in robotics for years, the vast majority of companies with 500 or fewer employees have not had that luxury. Thankfully, that equation is changing. Increased availability of smaller sensors and faster processors has enabled the development of smaller, cheaper, more flexible robots that are easier to instruct and safer to operate than their heavy industrial counterparts. This reality has set the stage for the next wave of adoption: innovative small and midsize enterprises (SMEs).
That is the assessment of a white paper published by ROBO Global, an index and research company focused on helping investors capitalize on opportunities in fast-growing robotics and automation fields. Titled Automation Isn’t Just for the Fortune 500, the paper reasons that today’s competitive landscape is creating an interesting opportunity for discussions between money managers and their small business owner clients looking to incorporate more technology-centric investments into their portfolios.
The reason this area continues to have such a strong opportunity for future growth lies in the untapped non-tech industries that have yet to automate. While massive corporations’ adoption of the technology moves the needle, small businesses account for 99.9 percent of the businesses in the United States, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The availability of robotics is one factor driving adoption as SMEs continue to struggle filling labor gaps. U.S. SMEs employ 58.9 million people, accounting for 47.5 percent of the workforce. Meanwhile, aging baby boomers and stiff competition for both skilled and unskilled labor have led to worsening labor shortages in every sector from agriculture to medicine. These demographic shifts have contributed to the political controversy around immigration and the reshoring of production.
To state that the labor shortage is killing American manufacturing is no exaggeration. In order to keep machines running, American manufacturers need workers, and there simply aren’t enough human workers on hand to get the jobs done. Robotics automation is the only real alternative.
Changing attitudes about adoption also play a role in SMEs’ growing interest in automation technology. It wasn’t long ago when automation was something SME business owners could only dream of acquiring. “Bleeding edge” was not a place where they could afford to play. So, they sat on the sidelines watching large companies reap the benefits. As automation quickly became ubiquitous, academia, governments and corporate America began to focus on workforce development and retraining to make the most of all the capabilities these technologies offer.
Against this backdrop, companies of every size took notice. In a recent survey by research firm IDC, 46 percent of respondents said increased operational capacity was one of the top benefits of commercial service robotics. That awareness, combined with a clearer understanding of how to evaluate and implement robotics, lower price points, and an urgent need to augment the existing workforce, has made SMEs more willing and able to consider bringing automation inside the walls of their own facilities.
Among the many automation technologies available to SMEs, the following stand out as offering the greatest potential benefits:
- Cobots: Collaborative robots, or cobots, have grown in popularity. Designed to enable human collaboration and ensure safety, cobots can be adjusted to integrate into a variety of roles, often working side-by-side with human workers.
- Automation apps: Myriad apps aimed at SMEs can help improve efficiency and save the time and money required to accomplish tasks that have traditionally been assigned to a human workforce. Examples include accounting, point-of-sale, payroll, and invoicing apps, all of which enable human workers to focus on higher-value tasks.
- AI-enabled data analytics: As smaller organizations become more adept at using Cloud-based tools, their ability to infuse AI with clean, accurate data is improving. AI-enabled analytics, especially those equipped with machine learning capabilities, can help supercharge SMEs without the need to add additional labor.
AI, of course, reaches far beyond data analytics. Clearly the most disruptive technology innovation of our lifetime, AI is being embraced by enterprises to use all sorts of data to their advantage and integrate processes across all lines of business and industries. The list of applications is as impressive as it is vast — including marketing and sales, AI-powered contact center solutions, deep learning algorithms, natural language processing, industrial IoT models, financial institutions, and cybersecurity companies.
Although organizations understand the importance and potential impact of AI, many struggle to move from pilot to production. According to IDC, the top challenges organizations must address in order to scale AI initiatives are cost (i.e., hardware accelerators and compute resources), lack of skilled personnel, lack of machine learning operations tools and technologies, lack of adequate volume and quality of data, and trust and governance issues. If large organizations struggle with these challenges, it may be some time before the real power of AI will fall into the grasp of SMEs.
This article was excerpted from the ROBO Global white paper. Read the full report here.