Does Your C-Suite Need a Chief Robotics Officer, Too?

By Didem Tali, Contributor

It was like a scene from a science fiction movie gone wrong. In July 2015, a robot working on the assembly line at a Volkswagen plant in Germany trapped and killed a 22-year-old factory worker. While Volkswagen authorities revealed that the robot malfunctioned due to a human error, the fatal accident stirred a public debate about the future of robots and humans working side-by-side.

Not long ago, ensuring the smooth integration of robot coworkers might have sounded like a far off dystopian job. Yet today, the need for this role might be closer than we think. Research from the International Federation of Robotics reveals worldwide robot density is on the rise. Today, for every 10,000 employees (in manufacturing industries) there are 74 robots—a increase of 12 percent in just three years.

According to Dell Technologies’ Realizing 2030 research, 82 percent of business leaders believe humans and machines will work as integrated teams within their organization in the next five years.

As thousands of companies around the world continue to adopt and expand robots as part of their workforce, many have welcomed a new member to their C-Suite. Meet the Chief Robotics Officer (CRO).

Growing Demand for CROs

Sarah Boisvert, author of “The New Collar Workforce” and founder of Fab Lab Hub, a non-profit that provides advanced manufacturing training for new technologies, sees the CRO as an emerging role that’s particularly important for manufacturing.

But what, exactly, does the CRO do?

“The CRO looks at the integration of robotics with other technologies to increase productivity and help humans interface with robots,” she described.

In addition to putting regular training programs in place, she went on, they also keep on top of new advances in the field, such as monitoring safer robot-human interaction, recruiting operators, servicing technicians that program robots, and repairing machines. Part of the job is also data-driven, collecting information for predictive data analytics.

According to the Robotics Business Review, the CRO is one of the fastest growing responsibilities in the tech world. Myria Research predicts that by 2025 more than 60 percent of Global 1,000 companies operating in healthcare, energy, and agriculture will have a CRO. Today, giants like Amazon, Walmart, and Adidas have already hired CROs and many more companies, big and small, are following suit.

“The CRO looks at the integration of robotics with other technologies to increase productivity and help humans interface with robots,”

– Sarah Boisvert, Founder of Fab Lab Hub

CRO and the Role of Automation

In 2007, Bill Gates famously declared that robots and automation would be the “next big thing,” as he felt automation could revolutionize most everyday tasks in both business and daily life. As it turns out, his predictions are ringing true.

Business intelligence firm Tractica estimates that the global robotics market will grow from $28.3 billion in 2015 to $151.7 billion by 2020. And while robots are most widespread in manufacturing and supply chains, where robot-led automation is helping to make operations more efficient and environmentally friendly, as technologies become more sophisticated, researchers predict adoption will spread to sectors that aren’t inherently technological.

The travel industry has already begun to incorporate self-driving cars and even self-dragging suitcases. In the human resources world, HR executives are looking to automate technology, such as AI assistants, to manage important data sets and assist in candidate screening.

While it’s not clear how many more CROs this cross-industry growth will bring, what is apparent is the need for an evolving leadership skill set to guide the automated workforce.

Boris Krumney, CRO of UiPath, a robotic process automation (RPA) vendor, believes that any company that can automate a part of its business will likely need to hire a CRO. “It’s going to be a massive change in the workplace of the future,” he said in an interview with Platform Outsourcing Nederland in 2017, “in the same way our mobile phones [have] come to assist us in our daily jobs.”

Leading the Future Workforce

While leading researchers such as Gartner, Tractica, and Robotics Business Review anticipate companies will benefit from the growth of robotics and automation, this influx in robotics technology might also come with its fair share of growing pains.

According to Dwight Klappich, VP of research at Gartner, many companies still don’t grasp the importance of robotics leadership.

“While robots are rapidly growing in use,” Klappich said in a Gartner interview, “development of effective principles, processes, and disciplines for managing automated workers are still in the very early stages.”

In order to make the most of the robotics revolution, Klappich urged companies to create a CRO position that will blend engineering, IT, and human capital management skills to develop the management structure to oversee all facets of the robotic life cycle. And to tackle the challenges of the increasingly automated workforce—finding the right CRO—companies will need to start thinking long term.

“Robotics technologies are developing at a pace we cannot keep up with,” Boisvert said. “They have an enormous potential for jobs and development, [but] in order to raise robotics leaders to meet these needs, we need to holistically improve our robotics training and educational agenda.”