Bots On Board
Organizations Are Launching Projects To Bring Robots Into Their Workforce
Robots need a little onboarding, too. As the workforce becomes more automated, more organizations are incorporating a new generation of robot employees. Across all sectors, nearly 20 percent of jobs could be automated by 2030, according to PwC.
Nonhuman talent is at the door, but most organizations aren't prepared to implement change initiatives that integrate robots. Only 17 percent of global executives say they're ready to manage a workforce that includes humans and robots, according to Deloitte.
“Being the first to implement these robots comes with some initial readjustments,” says Lee Richards, vice president of operations, Southeast Asia, Millennium Hotels and Resorts, Singapore. The organization introduced robots to help take care of hotel guests and rooms in 2017, and plans to bring in other types this year.
Weaving robots into the fabric of the organization is a trial-and-error endeavor, so organizations are starting small, closely tracking key metrics and rapidly applying lessons learned.
Bit by Bit
At NASA, four robots joined the shared services center team over the past year. Automations at the U.S. space agency include processing funds distribution, creating work packages for grant processing and creating reports of daily invoice processing. Each robot costs about US$6,000 in annual licensing fees. So far their primary benefit has been reduction in processing time, greater data analysis, eliminating human error in accounting tasks and additional internal controls.
NASA's first project challenge was to determine how robots would be credentialed to work with sensitive material. The team arrived at a humane solution: Robots are assigned an agency user ID and a government email account and gain system access just like any new user. “Basically we had to treat a digital employee just like we would a human employee,” says Pamela J. Wolfe, chief of the enterprise service division, shared services center, NASA, Stennis Space Center, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA. “We worked closely with other government agencies to determine how to establish credentials for a digital employee.”
Lee Richards with Aura. At right, Aura at work at M Hotel in Singapore
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MILLENIUM HOTELS AND RESORTS
From there, Ms. Wolfe said the team took an iterative approach, training the first robot to learn one task at a time. It took two to six weeks to train for each task, complete user testing and ensure that the appropriate information was captured to track lessons learned for the future.
One of their takeaways was that a robot implementation team shouldn't assume standard testing time. Instead, project teams should work with process owners to develop a schedule aligned to stakeholders' needs. For one process, the project team estimated that testing would take one to two weeks. However, the process owners wanted eight weeks for user acceptance testing. “It's important to get the process owner involved in developing the schedule and committing resources to meet the plan.”
NASA is also asking employees to submit suggestions to identify new uses for the robots. In this way, the shared services center is helping define how the U.S. government plans to implement robotics more widely to avoid overhead costs. The service center already has 160 ideas in the queue.
“If we think it's right for automation, we look at the requirement, what priority it has and what benefit it yields,” says Ms. Wolfe. “The sky is the limit.”
Robot Room Service
Starting small helped Millennium Hotels and Resorts overcome early skepticism from hotel employees when it piloted a hospitality robot named Aura at its M Social Singapore hotel. The robot delivers amenities that guests request, such as linens or water, to their rooms. A six-month testing phase helped human employees see how their new co-worker could help make their jobs easier, Mr. Richards says.
Aura, which refers to “autonomous room service associate,” proved to deliver a big efficiency boost, freeing up a total of eight hours of human workers' time each day. Buoyed by those results, the hotel then rolled out a food preparation robot, which reduced cooking time for certain orders by 30 percent.
The organization has learned that implementing robots requires a lot of human-led configuration and mapping so the robots can complete tasks. For instance, the project team had to integrate Aura's software with the elevator and phone systems so the robot could be dispatched autonomously and properly.
“We did many surveys to track Aura's performance. Only with the data analytics and consolidated report did we roll out this initiative,” Mr. Richards says. The team tracked guests' feelings before and after the robots' implementation, capturing feedback via social media and from guest surveys.
—Lee Richards, Millennium Hotels and Resorts, Singapore
Positive customer feedback gave the organization confidence to roll out service robots at four other Singapore properties. Now the hotel group is considering how robots might improve front-desk operations by directly fielding requests from guests. —Ambreen Ali