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The Arrival Of Robot, Garment Industry, and The Future

Refayet Ullah Mirdha of the Daily Star did a truly wonderful piece early this month titled “Envoy embraces robotic tech to raise standards, output”. From Mr. Mridha's report:

Bangladesh's apparel manufacturers are increasing the use of modern technologies to boost productivity, deliver products on time and meet demand for finer products from global retailers and brands. Some local fabrics manufacturers have even gone one step further, as they are using robotic technology and machinery.

Envoy Textiles Ltd (ETL) is one such denim fabrics manufacturer which is using robotic machinery to raise output and improve the quality of products.

Refayet goes on talking to Kutubuddin Ahmed, chairman of Envoy Group denoting the potential benefits of using cutting edge technology like robotics in manufacturing including higher productivity, increased efficiency, reduction of waste and cost and much more. According to the report, deployment of robots would reduce the requirement of human intervention from 10 to 1 in a particular instance of manufacturing work.

This is, given the nature of work in the garment industry, a predictable development. Many experts have predicted that a large portion of uniform manual labor done in garment industry will be carried out by robots in the coming years. The surprise is, however, that we did not expect it coming this early. Blame the human tendency that always mistakes when it comes to predicting the possibility of a negative event happening. We often predict a greater possibility of a positive event happening than a negative one. With garment industry and robot, it is no different. We missed the count.

No doubt, the introduction of robotech in the garment industry will have implications on the industry, employment, and the society.

There are two aspects to it: one is general robotics that can help to do repetitive work more efficiently than the humans. The robot in the discussion is of that nature and then there are robots with a certain level of intelligence that can accomplish a more complex task and learn as it goes.

The arrival of robotech and the future

I have seen two responses to the Daily Star article, one category of people thinks that it will destroy employment and create mass unemployment and the other category considers that it is a great thing that a Bangladeshi company introduced robotics in manufacturing. Both are right.

Technology, any kind of it, has always invoked a negative response in terms of its immediate negative impact and not so critical response in terms of its far-reaching and long term impact.

No matter how we take the particular development, we have to accept that the history of humanity is the history of technology. Fire was the first tech that disrupted human civilization massively and then farming and advanced farming and then industrialization. The implication of tech is far and wide.

The introduction of robotech in garment industry will have two micro impacts that each will have further macro impacts. One is it will increase efficiency and profit resulting in more wealth for the owners and the select few. And it will destroy a part of repetitive and largely less productive manual labor in the industry risking jobs of hundreds and thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled labor in the country who would have a difficult time finding alternative employment opportunities. At the same time, it will also change the competitive landscape of the industry. With increased efficiency and reduced cost, the early adopters will enjoy virtually infinite competitive edge over smaller players in the market.

Bangladesh is the second largest RMG exporter in the world and offers a competitive price. The prediction goes that the country will soon become the largest exporter in the space. That said, the competitive advantage RNG enjoys is cheap labor. This sounds absurd but that is the reality. We can manufacture cheap because we can afford to pay our workers less. In most cases, garment workers maintain inhuman work hours for a wage that hurts. That said, the truth is a majority of these workers are either unskilled or semi-skilled and it would require significant training, investment and time to train them which many employers deem impossible or are not interested in investing.

Now that tech is coming into the industry, it will destroy many of these jobs and we will require special programs to deal with these people. At the same time, this will also push people to do more skilled, diverse, complex work that would likely result in better pay.

The another aspect will be that the small manufacturers and many big ones will focus on doing more value-added work or will rather be forced to do so in order survive which will yield a better result in the long run.

It is easy to conceive impact the use of robotics in manufacturing will have on repetitive manual jobs but it is hard to conceive how it will change the dynamics of the industry, in the long run. We will have to wait to see that.

That said, whether we want it or not we can’t sidestep the technological progress and we should not do that either if we care about a better future. The truth is that many of these jobs will be lost anyways and that is what history tells us all the time but we will have to work hard not to mismanage this change and ensure a better future for the people who will be affected by this shift. And we should prepare ourselves for that.

Lead image: AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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