What will the workforce in finance and manufacturing look like in the future? The Economist Intelligence Unit report, Humans and machines: The role of people in technology-driven organisations delves into the compelling sector of workplace automation. In the first of a two-part blog, we look at whether technology could ever displace humans in the workplace. Exploring the evolution of businesses, we will examine how humans and technology will interact in the future.

Finance

Over one-third of the financial executives surveyed for the report felt that automation often costs their organisation money, or results in a loss of customers. In a time of fluctuating markets, trading surges and violent swings in short periods are not uncommon. Financial markets increasingly rely on technology to trade shares in fractions of a second. In retail banking and personal finance, the demands of the marketplace have forced increasing automation to drive results, for example in the peer-to-peer personal loans market.

Yet human decision making is still crucial to this industry. Trading is a social, people-driven activity. The challenge for finance lies in the interaction between the human side of the industry and technological development. Many surveyed complained of a disconnect between new automated functions and front of office functions. 

Rapid technological advances can cause problems for banks, who have had to develop improvements and risk controls to balance out advances. Managers feel uncomfortable handing large trades to automated machines. However, the overwhelmingly positive outcome felt by many was that increased automation freed up more time for innovation and creativity by those working in finance.

Manufacturing

Similarly to finance, a majority of manufacturers surveyed felt that increasing automation had enabled their employees to be more creative. New technologies developed in manufacturing, such as 3D printing and robotics, are driving what is sometimes referred to as a ‘third industrial revolution.’ What does this mean for manufacturing? Jobs in the future will require more skills, as jobs move away from the factory floor.

“Looking ahead, we believe the job will be done mainly by workers, but with robots assisting them.” – Michael Zurn, Head of Production & Material Technology at Daimler. 

Companies are developing robots that can work better alongside humans. Launched in 2012, Rethink Robotics ‘Baxter’ has an LCD screen “face.” With no experience, ‘Baxter’ can be controlled via a simple interface, allowing for easier human-technology interaction. In the future manufacturing firms will move their workforce away from the shop-floor, towards a collaborative approach. Marketing, design and IT staff will also be spending more time with data analytics.

Does this mean that at some stage, systems can learn tasks by themselves? Some say yes. In manufacturing and finance alike, the future of man and machine is one of collaboration, flexible interaction and pragmatism. Across both industries, increased automation allows humans to do what they do best: ideas, design and engineering.

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