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Automation is hitting small US businesses, and—surprise!—it’s not all bad

We talk about the future of work at small firms with MIT professor Liz Reynolds.
MIT Work of the Future Initiative

Automation is bringing change to businesses large and small. We sat down with Liz Reynolds, executive director of MIT’s Work of the Future task force, to see how her research brings her in touch with small companies in the US that are already feeling the impact of robotics and AI.

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How is automation affecting smaller companies?

We’ve been out talking to small and medium-sized manufacturing firms, and what’s exciting is that this automation technology is now accessible to them. We previously had robots that were hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cobots [robots that people can work with collaboratively] are now only $50,000 to $80,000. It’s just remarkable how the cobot has become more accessible and helps small firms be competitive.

How are businesses without huge budgets able to train their workers to use these technologies?

First, there are often [outside companies] who figure out how you will place these robots in the workflow. They will usually provide training. Robotics companies are also testing cobots that could be trained in an hour or two by the operators themselves. You don’t have to understand what’s under the hood. Some workers weren’t doing a lot of computer interfacing before, but now they are.

A lot of smaller companies aren’t located in major cities. How does that affect their ability to train and gain new workers?

What you ideally want is flexibility in terms of skill set and opportunities for people. When something changes in one industry, you want workers to be able to switch to other industries. In rural towns, that can be more difficult. I think there is a larger question of urban transportation and mobility generally. What does that mean for giving people enhanced access to jobs? There’s a place-based dimension to all of these issues.

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