Made possible with myob
Made possible with myob

This is the fourth edition in an eight-week series, made possible by MYOB, looking at how technology is changing the way New Zealand businesses operate.

While automation started off as machines handling simple tasks such as washing clothes and dishes, it now covers much more advanced work like picking fruit and driving cars.


In other words, automation is pushing into areas that were once the domain of human workers, and the reason for that is a never ending demand for increased business efficiencies and at times, the inability to find people to do the work.

An automated kiwifruit picker
An automated kiwifruit picker

Automation is an accelerating global megatrend analysts say, and New Zealand businesses that do not embrace it won't be competitive in the near future.

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Machines with sensors for vision and audio, as well as location, movement and environmental factors that are connected through 5G internet of things (IoT) networks will be able to use machine learning algorithms on computer clouds to perform better and faster as time goes on.

MYOB: Automation is changing the way we work - but is it for the better?

A recently published global survey from car making alliance Renault--Nissan-Mitsubishi points to over half of small businesses expecting that their vehicle fleets will be fully autonomous (and electric) within the next two decades.


That transformation will start in earnest within five years thanks to online shopping and an increasing demand for deliveries. In essence, we'll have automated manufacturing of goods for sale in e-commerce stores, and they'll be freighted by self-driving vehicles to customers.


A range of less-skilled positions, from factory floor workers to sales people and couriers look set to disappear in that scenario too.


Estimates of the number of jobs at risk of automation vary, with PriceWaterHouseCoopers believing a quarter of New Zealand's jobs, or 578,000, will go over the next two decades.


Infometrics on the other hand forecasts that 31 per cent of jobs are at "a high risk of automation" over the next twenty years, due to a tight labour market and proposed significant increases to the minimum wage pushing businesses towards technology adoption.


In the long run, automation and its related technologies are likely to replace the jobs they destroy with new ones, analysts note. Now is the time to start thinking about where that process will take us, and businesses need to be prepared for the transformation.


Removing humans from logistics thanks to automation is a big change that Auckland's HMI Technologies foresaw four years ago and acted on. The company makes intelligent transport systems like variable signs, and speed signalling devices for roads and highways.

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Such signs are great for people, but self-driving connected vehicles won't need them and instead require different guidance and advisory systems.


HMI Technologies decided to set up a self-driving vehicle offshoot, Ohmio. Why?


"How do we compete with Google and Tesla that want to replace the consumer vehicle?" Ohmio's research and development coordinator Mahmood Hikmet asks.


"We don't," Hikmet says.

Mahmood Hikmet from Ohmio
Mahmood Hikmet from Ohmio

Instead Ohmio is targeting the first and last mile of commute, shuttling people to and from public transport. Corporate and educational campuses, theme parks and other organisations that have their own roading networks is what Ohmio targets with its self-driving shuttles.


Ohmio brought the first autonomous vehicle to New Zealand in conjunction with Christchurch Airport, the city council, NZTA and University of Canterbury, Hikmet says.


Despite challenges around mass production, Hikmet believes Ohmio's first commercial self-driving vehicle will hit the road in Christchurch later this year.


Artificial intelligence - or as Hikmet calls it, a complex averaging system - will be a key technology for Ohmio as it moves forward and develops public transport systems.


Among these are shuttles that act like trams, using virtual tracks that can be changed in software.
"There's a market out there ready for that solution now, and it's not as technically advanced as a level 5 autonomous vehicle that works in every road condition, and which is what the big players are going after," Hikmet says.

Ohmio's self driving shuttle
Ohmio's self driving shuttle

Are self-driving vehicle companies and automation in general a threat to employment?


Hikmet doesn't think so.
"As technology advances, there are a whole lot of jobs that weren't around, that are constantly being created, I'd say at a faster rate than it's making people lose their jobs," Hikmet said.


How can small businesses and people future-proof themselves in the automation era?


Automation will become cheaper, more flexible and do "brainy tasks"; in the process it will change the way the world looks and feels, says Callaghan Innovations manager of future insights for advanced manufacturing, Robert Blache.


Modern technology means that there are many more opportunities to apply automation across the entire economy affordably, Blache believes.


This includes small businesses, which will be able to apply automation to improve productivity and competitiveness, he says.


Collaborative automation where people work with machines will free up time for more creative tasks, which in turn will grow businesses.


No matter how technology changes our lives in the future, Bache says collaborative and creative skills will always be in demand, and that younger generations should focus on developing those.


"We should look positively at automation, and see it as an ally who is trying to make our lives easier, and explore opportunities how we can achieve more together," Blache says.
"For small businesses to get started with automation, it is important to think big, start small, and scale fast," he advises.


That is, small businesses need to start on a learning journey about automation, not with a big implementation of technology but a small one, and then be quick to scale or grow with whatever works.


Midday Wednesday, the Herald will run a live panel in which experts will discuss how this technology is changing small business in New Zealand. Tune in to participate in the live chat.