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Workplace automation nothing to be afraid of


Technology can help enhance the working environment

Technology can help enhance the working environment

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Technology can help enhance the working environment

Big improvements in how people perform at work are increasingly possible. More automation is essentially good news. Better productivity re-enforces viability and growth, even though some businesses may need fewer employees and must plan for possible redundancies.

Catalyst Inc sponsored a study with help from the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre that issued a warning and a challenge. The headline was that up to 450,000 jobs in Northern Ireland might be affected by automation. But to say this was NOT to say these employees would all be made redundant. The intended meaning was that many parts of the working environment would be affected in differing ways, to differing degrees. The changes would call for cleverer working methods.

Such changes should be welcomed. Avoiding them could seriously damage the viability of a competitive business.

Catalyst Inc has taken further steps. Last week, it brought together over 250 people and challenged them with thoughts from recognised international experts on what should be done to improve the quality of jobs in the economy and ease the problems of adjusting to the new environment, not only to get people for the more demanding jobs but also to ease the problems for people who might be displaced.

One feature underpinned the whole debate. Automation and improved output from existing (and new) jobs is a potential and welcome game-changer. Job displacement, if it occurs, can be more than offset through a knock-on effect from improvements in the wider economy.

The Solutions Summit confirmed that the nature of many jobs and the way in which they are organised should be high on the agenda for many businesses.

A critical first lesson from the search for solutions to the potential changes in the jobs market must be that businesses, as employers, have a responsibility to embrace changes, whether from new techniques or technology, backed by processes that can be adapted or designed for greater automation, that will enhance their competitive abilities. The first steps lie with the business managers, but it would be too easy, and a mistake, to say to managers, 'Fix it yourselves'.

Perhaps the greatest value of the jobs summit was the collective effort, in that challenging task-related room, to cope with the opportunities and challenges from automation, to share ideas on how local businesses could be helped.

In small groups of 10, people accepted the challenge of setting priorities for immediate action and longer-term adjustments.

Catalyst Inc now has a large menu of policy suggestions which will be a baseline for follow-up development.

There will be little surprise that, central to a new agenda to meet the challenges, there are key suggestions to improve the way in which education and skills preparation is undertaken.

There are proposals which focus on making sure that people, especially younger job seekers, are better equipped to take advantage of the changes. To emphasise just one theme, job seekers need to be ready not just with technical or professional qualifications, but also with initiative, adaptability and enthusiasm for continuous improvement.

The Solutions Summit has created a considerable agenda on ways to help cope with the problems of adjusting to any loss of a job.

Catalyst Inc has stimulated an overdue review of now Northern Ireland can use the application of greater degrees of automation to the benefit of a stronger economy. Now they need to lead continuing support in its application. Uberisation (and the like) can be the stimulant to constructive change.

Company report: Terumo BCT

Terumo BCT is a Japanese owned company headquartered in Tokyo. The company is registered for the manufacture and distribution of basic pharmaceutical products and describes its main product groups as meeting the needs for specialist sterile solutions and for items selling to the blood collection disposables market.

The Northern Ireland plant is located in Millbrook, near Larne, and has operated at that site since the plant was established in 2004.

In the last three years the business has expanded the level of sales by nearly 50%.  Sales are recorded across Europe but the greater proportion of the output is sold in the United States.

From the financial years to March 2015 then to March 2017, operating profits have recovered from lower levels. 

Pre-tax profits were restored in 2016 after a small loss was recorded in 2015.  The improvement was continued into 2017.

Each year the business incurs significant capital investment costs although, in 2016-17, spending was lower than in the previous year. 

In 2014-15 the business recorded an impairment of capital assets of £923,000.  In that year, expenditure of £422,000 for research and development was charged.  Further research and development expenditure of £319,000 was charged in 2016-17.

Employment has increased in recent years and averaged 325 people in the last financial year.

The company has not paid any dividends to shareholders. Retained post-tax profits are added to the balance sheet value of shareholders’ funds.

Belfast Telegraph