Effect on skilled labour. Robotic machines can perform certain unpleasant and dangerous jobs, such as welding and painting, that can be injurious to a worker's health. They can handle loads of up to a ton or more and work efficiently in temperatures ranging from near freezing to uncomfortably hot. Automation has eliminated much of the worker's physical and mental drudgery and has allowed the worker to change from a machine operator to a machine supervisor.
At the same time, by increasing productivity as measured in output per man-hour, automation can reduce the number of workers. In the 1950s and '60s employment declined in the chemical, steel, meat-packing, and other industries in developed countries that achieved large increases in output. Except in certain older industrial areas in Britain and the United States, however, the widely feared onset of mass unemployment did not materialize. Although certain jobs and skills have been rendered obsolete, a vast array of new jobs calling for different skills has grown up.
Automation has brought about changes in the worker's relation to the job. Here the differences between labour practices in different countries proves instructive. The old management principle that work should be broken down into the smallest operations, so that the worker would not have to use any intelligence in performing a job, was based perhaps upon the notion that the worker is stupid. Hence, when full mechanization was introduced into American factories, the workers were not permitted to stop the moving assembly line if anything went amiss; that was presumed to be the task of supervisory engineering personnel. The result was both low productivity and a loss in quality control. In Japanese factories, on the other hand, assembly-line workers were allowed to stop the process when something went wrong. Indeed, the Japanese companies formed "quality circles," wherein the workers were given a say in the performance of their tasks and in the process of problem solving--an application of Mayo's Hawthorne effect, which they had learned from American management consultants. These practices improved both productivity and quality.
A similar way of enhancing quality and work performance is what is known as group assembly, which started in Swedish automobile plants and was also adopted by the Japanese and then by the Americans. With this system a group of workers is responsible for the entire product, rather than individual workers doing only one small task. If something goes wrong on an assembly line, an individual worker can push a button and hold things in place until the problem is resolved. This approach to production is being increasingly employed throughout the world. It already has had major implications for the labour force and labour-management relations. For one thing, it allows smaller numbers of more highly skilled workers, operating sophisticated computer-controlled equipment, to replace thousands of unskilled workers in assembly-line plants.
As a consequence, the highly skilled worker, who began to disappear with the introduction of the old-fashioned mass production assembly line, again became indispensable. The increasing use of automated machinery and control systems placed new demands on both the technical skills and the intellectual aptitudes of production workers. While automation may have eliminated many unskilled jobs, it increased the demand for highly skilled mechanical labourers and knowledgeable technicians who could operate the newer automated devices. As a result, the early prophecies that automation would reduce the need for workers' skills have proved to be the contrary of what has been happening. Automation may be seen as improving efficiency and expanding production while relieving drudgery and increasing earnings--precisely the aims of Frederick W. Taylor at the turn of the 20th century.
The office workplace. The introduction of computers also affected the organization of work in the information sector of the production economy. File clerks, bookkeepers, and other skilled office personnel involved in information processing were replaced by semiskilled keypunch and tabulating-machine operators. Office automation represents a further mechanization of office work, a process that began with the typewriter and the adding machine in the 19th century.
The information flow in offices has been likened to the movement of materials in manufacturing. Information, like materials, must be stored; typing or keypunching changes the form of the information, just as a machine operation changes the form of the workpiece; the value of the finished product is changed by adding information to it; and there must be a measure of quality control to make certain that the information is accurate. Just as automated machinery has done away with the jobs of many machine operators, integrated information-processing systems have eliminated many clerical tasks. For the production operation, automation provides an exact control over the inventory of raw materials, parts, and finished goods. Applied to billing operations in the office, it often can drastically reduce accounting costs.
The combination of computers and telecommunications led some to believe that office workers would perform their required functions without leaving their homes, as the computer terminal would take the place of their usual paperwork. Such predictions generally have not materialized, however. Social psychologists explain this by pointing out the social aspect of the work process, in the office as well as on the assembly line. Office workers have revealed their nature as "social animals" who enjoy the companionship of their fellow employees at the workplace.
Nevertheless, office automation affects management-worker relationships in a number of ways. For middle-level employees it means that higher management can have the reports of production, costs, and inventory at their fingertips and on the computer screens at their desks instead of depending on their subordinates for information. Automation also gives managers the means to monitor the efficiency of office workers in a way hitherto impossible. Through computerized information they can, for example, count the number of times per hour that a typist strikes a letter on the keyboard or ascertain the number, times, and nature of a worker's telephone calls.