A robot sorts construction waste spread onto a conveyor belt through a vibration sieve. The robots are enclosed in cages.

In English

19.05.2015

On the verge of a revolution

Digitalization and new technology are changing all kinds of work. Old work tasks disappear and new ones are born. Technology provides opportunities to improve productivity, safety and well-being at work. Progress has been made at SITA’s plant for handling construction waste at Viikki, Helsinki.

It takes a while to realize this at SITA’s waste handling plant in Viikki. There are no people here walking or standing in the sorting hall. Instead, on the upper level of the hall, three robots are picking and sorting construction waste materials from a conveyor belt at an extremely rapid pace. The robots remind one of cranes feeding in a swamp, tirelessly picking up frogs with their beaks. The movements of the machines are deliberate, precise and quick. The first robot on the line picks up to 2000 objects from the conveyor belt in just an hour.

One naturally wonders how many human hands and jobs the robots have replaced.

– Not even one, on the contrary, the robots have created new jobs. We wouldn’t be able to offer work to even the half dozen people here if we hadn’t partly automated the plant, says Jorma Kangas, managing director of SITA Finland (SITA Suomi).

Tuija Hirvi, occupational safety chief, explains that the employees at the Viikki plant now work in the cabs of the machines. The indoor air and other working conditions inside the cab are easier to control than in the big open hall.

The insulated cab keeps out the noise, and the filtration system removes the possibly hazardous dust. And even in winter, working inside the cab is not as cold as in the hall which is partly open at the sides.

The trucks come in one at a time, and the drivers empty the construction waste in a pile on the floor of the hall within reach of the tractor’s grab shovel. The tractor operator carries out the first phase of the sorting by picking up the big pieces of different waste materials with the grab shovel. The operator has been instructed to stop the machine if a pedestrian comes within ten metres of the working area of the machine.

– Occupational safety has improved continuously. The machines used at the Viikki plant are new and designed to be safe. Maintenance jobs and removing disturbances can be done safety, and the operators have been trained to use the machines and equipment safely, says Hirvi.

Plant chief Raimo Haantaus summarizes the change in the work in one sentence:

– Because of the robots, the jobs done by people are now more rational, more pleasant and safer.

The limited space for heavy traffic, due to the small surface area of the plant is an occupational risk. There are strict traffic rules, and employees walking in the area must wear bright visible clothing and protective gear.

Both Hirvi and Haantaus believe that human beings will always have a role in the handling of wastes. Machines will do most of the work, but people are still needed to monitor the machines, to maintain them and to finalize the work. In a robotized plant, the employees need to have much more training than before.

The robots of the sorting hall at Viikki are tele-monitored at the ZenRobotics office in central Helsinki. Juha Koivisto, project manager of ZenRobotics says that the robotic system complies with the safety requirements of industrial automation.

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Heavy traffic follows strict rules because the yard of the waste handling plant is quite small.

Better utilization of waste materials

The partly automated plant at Viikki represents the future. When it was built, it was the first of its kind. According to managing director Kangas, there are only half a dozen robotized waste handling plants in all of Europe.

– The sorting of wastes by robots is something entirely new. We want to do something that no one has yet done, and in that way get competitive edge. The competition is hard, and cost-efficiency is an important point for our clients, says Kangas.

The plant at Viikki is efficient: 90% or more of the in-coming construction waste is recycled.

– The new technology has brought new business opportunities for us. Earlier we offered only services, in other words, the collection and handling of wastes. But now, because of the efficient sorting, we also sell by-products of the sorting to industry.

According to the managing director, the investment of a few million euros in the Viikki plant is a substantial sum for an enterprise the size of SITA Finland. The company believes in the opportunities created by robots, and has worked hard with Finnish Zen-Robotics in order to define and develop the operation model. The aim is to develop robots for commercial use.

There certainly is demand, because the recycling of wastes is on the increase. SITA Finland has business sites throughout the country and nine plants that take in materials for recycling and utilization. SITA is Europe’s largest enterprise offering environmental waste handling services. It is a branch of the international Suez Environnement Corporation, which specializes in water and waste processing services.

– Of all wastes, the proportion of construction and demolition waste is about one third. In future, robots can be designed to sort also other kinds of waste, Kangas points out.

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Managing director Jorma Kangas explains that using robots to sort wastes has created an entirely new business concept for the enterprise.

Sorting is difficult for robots

Kangas believes that in the long run robots will have an impact on the productivity of waste processing. The handling of wastes is a voluminous business, and untiring, efficient and fast robots are especially suitable for doing it.

– We have been surprised to see that the handling of wastes is not easy for robots. Designing a well-functioning system has been more demanding than we expected. Construction waste is very complex because of the different materials and sizes of the pieces. That is why it has not been easy to achieve reliable sorting, says the managing director.

Developing the plant at Viikki has been time-consuming. The robotization project started in January 2013, and according to plant chief Raimo Haantaus, many changes have been made during the implementation process. For example, in July–September of last year better robots were installed on the conveyor belt, as well as a vibrating sieve which distributes the wastes onto the conveyor belt so that they are more suitable for the robots to sort.

– We seldom have disturbances, and the running costs of the robots are surprisingly low. They don’t use much electricity, says Haantaus.

The robots have already changed the handling of wastes irrevocably, but according to Jorma Kangas, the branch still makes use of many traditional advanced techniques, such as crushers, various mechanical sieves, as well as blast air and magnetic separators. Robotics will not replace these, but will complement other processing techniques.

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Tuija Hirvi and Raimo Haantaus say that working is safer and more pleasant after the robots came to Viikki.

Digitization is taking its first steps

The robotization at SITA’s plant in Viikki is part of the global revolution, the common denominator of which is digitization. The impact of the changes that the new technologies have on work has been compared to the industrial revolution. Earlier the changes were brought about by steam and electricity, now the zeros and ones of digitization. The past and the present transition are similar because of their capacity to change the nature of work radically.

Modern globalization brings along its own significant characteristics to the development process. Previously globalization affected only certain branches of the economy, but now it affects nearly all kinds of work in all branches.

The revolution of work life brought about by digitization and the development of digital phenomena is only just beginning. Digital processes have advanced rapidly in the present millennium, and this development is expected to be hectic. It will create innumerable new technological solutions and opportunities in the future. According to researcher Timo Seppälä, PhD, from the Research Institute of Finnish Economy, the commercial use of the Internet at the end of the 1990s was a central factor in the breakthrough of digitalization.

– 98% of all the processors in the world have not yet been connected to the Internet, so there is huge potential. Despite the web enthusiasm, it is still worth noting that the Internet is only a channel of information, and for example, artificial intelligence has to be built into the devices and services, explains Seppälä, who also teaches at the Aalto University Department of Industrial Engineering and Management.

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Robots are fast and untiring workers. They can pick up even small objects precisely.

At the same time, technology is seen as an opportunity for the creation of new jobs.

Routines are automated first

It is anticipated that digitalization and the new technology will in practice change all work. The contents of work will change, a part of today’s jobs will disappear, and new ones will be born. Previously it was thought that most types of information work would remain outside automation, but now for instance the basic tasks of book-keeping are being automated. Also work requiring analytical skills and other less routine know-how will change.

Most of the jobs will disappear from occupations requiring least training and skills, from industry and low-paying jobs which are easily replaced by automation. According to one view, digitization will change about 30% of industrial jobs in the near future.

A study carried out at the University of Oxford in 2013 estimated that up to 47% of the jobs in the United States were at risk of disappearing as a result of automation in 10–20 years. According to Timo Seppälä, every week 80 jobs will disappear from Finnish industry if the present trend continues. New jobs will emerge, but they will be in new branches.

A report published last year by the Ministry of Employment and the Economy shows that one third of Finns are working in the most rapidly changing occupations. A recent questionnaire survey conducted by the Association for Finnish Work showed that over 80% of Finns believe that technology will replace human labour, and 27% of the respondents fear that their own work will suffer from technology.

At the same time, technology is seen as an opportunity for the creation of new jobs. In general, Finnish people believe in technology and its positive influence.

Potential for productivity

According to research professor Heikki Seppä from the Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT), over-simplified discussion about the disappearance of occupations is pointless, because there is nothing new in the present situation. Occupations have always disappeared and new ones have always been created. Seppä says that education and other means will provide the solution.

– Along with the advances in technology, the number of workplaces has not decreased in the course of history. On the contrary, more work has been created. The causes of Finnish unemployment are structural, not technological, Seppä says.

In his opinion, one should look at the situation in the United States. There the technology is highly developed and it is used widely, yet the unemployment rate is lower than in Finland. During his long career, Seppä has been and still is actively involved in developing technology. He has a couple of hundred patents for his inventions which are related to measuring technology, such as various kinds of sensors.

– The new technology provides a means of increasing productivity. An atmosphere of fear of novel things must not prevail in politics or work life, because it prevents us from utilizing the increased productivity that technology generates, says Seppä.

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Service robots are on their way

As technology develops, the key issue will be the division of labour between human beings and machines. Work will not disappear, but its contents will change.

In future, human work will consist mostly of tasks requiring creativity, innovation, recognition of problems and possibilities, as well as social interaction. In other words, jobs which machines are unable to do properly, at least not in the near future. Human beings will also continue to be responsible for ethical and moral questions related to work, as well as matters related to information security concerning individuals. In many kinds of work, the best outcome will be the result of the collaboration between a human being and a machine.

Automation and robotization increase the efficiency of routine tasks. According to the MIT Technology Review, a robotized warehouse can take care of four times as many orders as a non-robotized warehouse. It is anticipated that robotics will change especially the industrial and logistics sectors.

– The robotization of industrial production, however, will be more moderate than in the service sector, where robotics will burst into a massive phenomenon, believes Antti Joensuu, strategic manager at the Ministry of Employment and the Economy.

According to Joensuu, service robots can be almost anything: robots related to the care of elderly people, automatically moving robots that deliver goods purchased online to customers, small flying robots that examine electric power lines, and so on. In future, an enterprise might purchase a particular kind of basic robot from the manufacturer, and then offer robot-related services to its clients.

– Service enterprises need to be alert and ready to try out novel solutions. It would be unfortunate if the same thing happened as in the Finnish net sales business which realized its potential rather late, says Joensuu.

Monitoring and measuring health

According to Heikki Seppä, combining the real world and the virtual world changes services. When for example the use of a mobile device to pay for purchases with the automatic ‘instant-pay’ system becomes more frequent, it will speed up the sales operation and free the salesperson to other tasks and a new kind of customer service.

– The salesperson’s work will change as routines are automated, and for instance the definition of a good salesperson will change. Simultaneously, the expenses arising from handling cash as well as credit cards will decrease, which in turn increases the productivity of work, Seppä says.

According to Seppä, the new technology offers huge opportunities for health care. With the new sensors, people can be examined and monitored exactly, and the collected data can be used by the doctor. A virtual doctor can be in a different location than the patient, and they can be in visual contact for example via a smart phone. The doctor can then utilize the information collected by the sensor and the discussion with the patient, and based on this, may then decide whether the patient needs to come for further examination in person. Thanks to information technology, the patient can be in contact with a familiar doctor, and this meets the patient’s social needs as well.

– The ’Internet of Things’ will be considerably more significant than people realize. Education and training can be much more efficient than now, as net learning will start from the students’ own motivation and playful way of learning, says Seppä.

The rational use of technology may help to make workplaces and work tasks mentally satisfying.

Solution-oriented approach

Seppä believes that the problem in Finland is too technology-oriented thinking, and technology is allowed to obscure the big picture. Technology is only a tool which enables new innovations and solutions. Work and work life don’t change by themselves, we ourselves must make the changes with our own decisions and actions. Seppä calls for a solution-centred approach that serves customers and users in the transition of work and working methods.

– The functioning of the world should be as fluent as possible with the aid of technology. Important issues, such as energy, decreasing carbon dioxide emissions, and health, must always be on the agenda, he says.

Solving problems and working to benefit the clients make work meaningful. This also increases productivity and well-being at work. According to Seppä, the motivation of workers is essential, and it doesn’t depend on technology. The rational use of technology may help to make workplaces and work tasks mentally satisfying.

– A problem that arises from technology-oriented thinking and the Internet is the bureaucratization of management and leadership. When all activities are followed and reported continuously, bureaucracy takes up too much time, and supervisors don’t have time to focus on visionary thinking, says Seppä.

– Smart phones, the Internet and new forms of communication technology have increased the efficiency working, but at the same time they have made especially Europe too rigid in regard to management.

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Aimur Saarekivi works as a lorry driver.

Renovation of education

Getting along in the new work life that exploits technology demands new skills, and these can be acquired through training. Heikki Seppä and Timo Seppälä both agree that the nature of education has to change. Life-long learning is truly important, not simply a worn-out cliché.

– The idea of getting an education for a life-long career before starting work life is no longer valid. The development of a person’s work career consists of various phases, and know-how and skills must be improved and up-dated continually, says Antti Joensuu.

Research has shown that for each euro invested in information and communication technology (ICT), roughly ten euros are needed to teach people and organizations to unlearn old ways, to retrain people, to reorganize and to refine new practices. Adopting new technology also takes time.

– In the future, more retraining will very likely be needed as the boundaries of traditional work fade, and new kinds of work are created. Tax reductions for private persons might be one means of accelerating learning, says Seppälä from the Research Institute of Finnish Economy.

According to Seppälä, information work done in a digital environment is increasingly work that is not left at the workplace, but is done all the time at some level. Another feature of information work is the splitting up of work and of income. A person may have several jobs, and his or her income consists of many small streams, instead of one source. At the same time, a consumer can utilize technology to become a producer who, for example, sells electricity produced at home to industry.

– In this respect, Finland is lagging behind. We still have a very traditional concept of work. The transition is taking place slowly, as digitization advances and work changes. Now we have many digital optimists as well as digital pessimists who have opposite views of the development of digitization, Seppälä says.

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