Introduction The progress of automation and smart devices has laid the foundation for the development of current manufacturing by achieving a high level of accuracy and consistency as well as contributed to addressing some common issues such as conservation of energy and resources (Frontini and Kennedy 2003). While the demands for introducing advanced machines into manufacturing companies have steadily increased for the purpose of boosting their growth, there is a growing discussion over whether human jobs will be replaced extensively in the future (McAfee 2013). This paper will aim to illustrate the recent change of automation in manufacturing companies and to analyse how diverse automation in manufacturing companies has impacted on Human Resource Management (HRM). After this, it will attempt to give a perspective concerning how automation will transform human operational management as well as describe how companies should prepare for future possibilities.
The recent change of automation in manufacturing companies The role of automation in manufacturing has progressed in accordance with the creation of new technologies and devices such as control systems and information technology. In terms of historical steps, automation has significantly expanded the range of production. According to Frontini and Kennedy (2003), since automation, especially robot technology, started developing in the 1960s, continuous progress has been strongly connected with the expansion of mass production. Originally, the main use of machines was for repeated work such as collecting materials, assembling and inspection. Later machinery could carry out a wide range of tasks with complex feedback and adaptive controls. After 1980, progress was accelerated by information technology, which enabled manufacturers to connect with suppliers and customers in real time. Currently, automation has been applied to various sectors and extended to improve the quality and the flexibility in manufacturing processes with highly developed technologies such as distributed control system. While earlier uses of automation focused on productivity and reliability by automating monotonous operations, the new generation has brought functions of addressing more complicated tasks in a whole supply chain without human intervention. As for the utilization of machines, it can be divided into several levels in modern factories. As Frontini and Kennedy (2003) illustrate, the fundamental level is the introduction of machine sensors, activators and pre-programmed sequences. The second is to activate the function as a work centre well connected to the local area network in real time. The third phase is to supervise several separated machines and routing data. The most advanced step is to deal with the total production. Resource utilization, order entry, queuing and scheduling are realized at this level. With the diversification of automation, it has been necessary for humans to expand their new roles as problem solvers and planners. It could be argued that the machine has achieved a marked improvement in manufacturing through revitalizing the function of human operators.
The past impact of automation on HRM in manufacturing companies Before arguing the impact of automation on HRM, it is vital to understand the basic features of the relationship between humans and machines. Frontini and Kennedy (2003) explain that whereas humans are uniquely capable of communicating with others, designing operational logic, analysing problems and building whole systems, machines’ outstanding capabilities are to repeat the task accurately and continuously, gather product performance data, monitor the gap from default output and optimize performance. These fundamental aspects imply that management should focus on utilizing the advantages of both human and machine abilities.