In recent days there have been features online and on TV media about the future of technology and robots and what it could mean for our jobs in the future. It got me thinking about technology in our industry. We all use some forms of advanced technology in our day to day jobs in this industry, no matter which part of the supply chain we work in. We couldn’t function without it.
But what does automation mean for our industry? Will we see it take away jobs? Could the use of technology, automation and robots help fill the skills gap?
The use of robots and tech
When we talk about robots, we’re not talking about metal men walking among us like androids in a sort of Westworld scenario. Rather, more primitive machines taking up the hard labour.
Many manufacturing sectors have embraced new machines and tech to help make their production more efficient, cost effective in the long term and to allow their offerings to be expanded. However, unions and others claim that these developments in technology are pushing people out of work, because a robot is now doing their job.
It’s a difficult balance to strike. Ethically, companies should look to employ who they can, boosting the local economy. But, you can’t stand in the way of the future either, and if there is technology and machinery out there that can remove human error, make more things per hour, and be more cost effective by doing so, then that company is going to explore that route too.
I suspect the same thing is going on in the window industry right now at systems and fabrication levels. We see all the time new machinery being bought by fabricators up and down the land, with the aim to make things quicker, more efficiently and with less errors. Naturally, these machines on a per item basis will make less mistakes and save more time. It would probably be a safe bet that the rise of robots and technology will have cost some people their jobs in our sector.
You can’t stop progress though. And with home owners becoming ever more demanding, both in terms of expectation of quality and range of choice, robots are required now probably more than ever to make that happen. We’re already under-staffed as an industry, so it falls on machines to get the job done in many cases.
Obviously we still need humans to operate most of the window industry’s machinery at some level. But in comparison to a few decades ago, humans are probably doing a lot less of the work than they used to. Will humans be making less in the window and door industry in the next five to ten years?
The biggest risks robots, machines and tech brings to people’s jobs is automation. When technology, software and hardware all combine to do the same job as a human, in less time, more efficiently and minus human error. For a business looking to streamline, improve long term margins and increase capacity, automation is a good thing.
We are already seeing it with some companies in our industry, especially with composite doors. There are a number of companies where you can price and order doors online via cloud software, that order then gets processed by computers at their end, automatically goes into the production line where a few humans oversee various points of production of that product. Obviously that is a very shortened and paraphrased version of what actually goes on. But we are seeing more and more of this joined up, technological approach from window and door fabricators.
Quite a few have online cloud pricing facilities. This is to help installers speed up pricing at their end, and to help reduce workloads for office staff at the fabricator. But eventually, as even the dinosaurs get dragged online, fabricators may well shed pricing department staff as more and more use online cloud based pricing programmes.
The factory floor is also a place where jobs could be lost in the coming years. For example, how long will it be before we see a fully automated factory which can fabricate a window frame from start to finish with the single use of human hands in the process? There are already some quite advanced factories out there, not quite fully automated, but more advanced than others, that are pushing the boundaries of how heavily involved machines can be in the production of windows and doors. Great news for the company, not so great news if you’re the person losing your job to a machine.
The same principles can be applied to systems companies making the raw materials for fabricators. How long before we see fully automated systems in place which take out humans? Cheaper in the long run for the company perhaps, but not great for local employment.
When it comes to installers and the sales side, I think this part of the market is less at risk. There is still very much a heavy face to face element when it comes to selling windows and doors to home owners. The internet still hasn’t really provided a suitable online solution for buying windows and doors that way. So for the foreseeable future showrooms and sales people still retain a very relevant presence in our industry.
Installers I think are pretty safe for now too. I don’t see much in the way of new technology being developed that can manage to fit windows into openings on site. Again, a very human element is required at that stage. The only scenario I can think of where no fitters would be required would be on pre-fabricated homes where big wall panels made in factories already have windows fitted into their openings. But given that the pre-fab housing market is still very small, I think the industry’s fitters are safe for a while.
In the next five or so years, I think the issue of automation, robots and new technology could see window and door fabricators employ less people. From their perspective, if it cuts costs long terms, helps speed up manufacture, increase production capacity and reduces the amount of mistakes made, then this will be a good thing in their eyes. And judging by the state of fabrication in this industry right now, a few people could so with being replaced by a robot or two.
This is going to be a massive issue not just for our sector but employment in general. Will the rise of the robots result in major lob losses? Time will tell.
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