The world of robotics has evolved significantly since the first industrial robot was deployed more than five decades ago.
Indeed, continuous development has made robots more capable today than they were even a few years ago.
The increase in automation capabilities has fuelled the proliferation of robots in a wide range of industries, specifically manufacturing.
The first type of industrial robot was a heavy electro-mechanical arm developed in the 1960s to perform certain hazardous lifting jobs.
Today, advancement in automation has made robots more intelligent as they are operated using sophisticated software and are capable of performing a wide range of complicated tasks.
The ways of working have rapidly evolved over the last few months as the worldwide Covid-19 crisis intensified.
They are expected to evolve further in the future as economic activities are resuming in Bangladesh and other parts of the world.
Factory operations that were halted for the last couple of months are expected to restart across the country soon.
However, the pandemic has resulted in identification and implementation of new ways of working.
These are going to influence productivity and competitiveness if businesses continue to produce using old models.
In such a situation, business leaders in Bangladesh need to rethink their production models to not only sustain the earlier levels of productivity, but also enhance competitiveness.
An appropriate example of such a scenario would be the apparel manufacturing sector, which is also the leading manufacturing sector and earns a significant amount of export revenue for the country.
According to data published by the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), 4,621 apparel manufacturing factories were operating in FY2019–20.
The sector earned more than $34 billion in revenue in FY19–20, which accounted for approximately 84 percent of the country's total export revenue.
Operations in apparel manufacturing factories have witnessed a significant transformation over the last couple of years.
Apart from adopting globally recognised software solutions to automate operational and financial processes, many factories have also adopted new technologies on production floors.
Manufacturing companies have started deploying automation technologies or robots to perform certain tasks.
As technological advancements and lower cost of adoption will become widespread, more companies will find it beneficial to use more sophisticated equipment in sewing line, cutting line, fusing line and finishing line.
Physical and social distancing have become the new norms in a pandemic-hit world.
Many healthcare organisations have recommended that a minimum distance should be maintained between each worker in offices.
The present layout of factories in Bangladesh is such that a lot of employees work together in a limited space.
With the evolution of new ways of working, factories will have to allow fewer workers inside so that they can maintain safe distance amongst themselves while working.
This will have an immediate impact on the manufacturing sector's output.
Physical distancing between workers will create empty spaces, and business leaders need to find an effective way to utilise such spaces to restore factory output to post-pandemic levels.
This is where organisations have the opportunity to adopt and deploy more autonomous machines and robots on factory floors.
Robots do not carry the risk of infection and can enhance productivity.
Once factories adopt such a level of automation, productivity will increase, or it will be restored to earlier levels.
As a result, the competitiveness of apparel manufacturing companies in Bangladesh will improve.
These companies are presently competing with apparel manufacturing units in other countries that are transforming themselves through automation.
The competition is also pushing down price points and increasing the pressure on the sustainability of the business.
One way to address this situation is to improve productivity so that a lower price point does not impact the profitability of the business.
As mentioned earlier, the manufacturing sector is a significant contributor towards Bangladesh's export revenue, and it is important for this sector to stay ahead of global competition and transform its factories faster.
However, the success of such a transformation cannot be determined by automation or deployment of robots alone.
The workforce needs to be trained to work in transformed workplaces.
Digital upskilling of workers, whether they work on the factory floor or at the office desk, will also become an important factor towards the sector's success amidst global competition.
Workers employed in manufacturing factories need to be trained in behavioural upskilling.
It will be important for workers to learn to cohabit with robots and autonomous machines, and some of them will be required to operate these machines as well.
The machines will be programmed to take inputs from one set of workers and hand over the output to another set of workers, and the workforce would be required to become familiar with such new ways of interaction.
Workers must upskill themselves to work in synchronisation with robots, which in turn will help in improving their productivity and earning potential.
While many stakeholders are still unable to fully grasp the transformative power of automation and robots, the fourth industrial revolution has already accelerated their adoption.
Automation is increasingly becoming a part of factory operations in industrially advanced countries.
The pandemic-hit world has given businesses in the country an opportunity to adopt newer technologies and advance in their journey while improving global competitiveness.
The author is a partner at PwC.