Feb 2, 2021

Automation: Friend or foe of tomorrow’s workforce?

Revisiting an old truism as Davos contemplates “The Great Reset”

By Kevin A. Costa

Zymergen Automation Cart Open Loop

Reconfigurable Automation Carts, or RACs, are a centerpiece of Zymergen’s biofacturing platform. This first-of-its-kind robotic system can be configured in a day or two to accomplish in weeks what would usually take years.

Automation is the enemy of the worker. Or is it?

During last week’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (a.k.a. Davos), executives and global leaders reflected on the future of work, stakeholder capitalism, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and other heady topics of the pandemic-induced “Great Reset.” Rooted in these themes was the question of how trends in automation and AI will impact the global workforce in the coming years.

The question may seem strange to today’s tech-driven companies and start-ups, where workers with a natural affinity for robots and software are partnering with ever-more sophisticated machines to co-create the future. Their goal: to achieve previously impossible products and productivity. 

“When we talk about automation’s effect on the workforce, we’re often talking about existing industries and how jobs are being changed or displaced,” says Will Serber, Zymergen’s Head of Automation. Will believes that automation opens up new business opportunities for existing companies while creating entirely new industries, particularly in life sciences.

Will Serber, Head of Automation at Zymergen

Along with machine learning and genomics, automation is a pillar of Zymergen’s biofacturing platform, which exemplifies how biology can make better products in a better way. For companies like Zymergen, automation opens up a new range of bio-based products for companies to develop, while also providing a means to bring them to market faster and cheaper.

“Our company simply would not exist without automation,” says Will.

Will was the first person the three founders brought in to help start Zymergen, which says a lot about just how central automation is to the company. From day one, his job has been to build robotic systems that do the busy work of moving liquids around in the lab. Will and the founders took a thoughtful approach, visiting some of the world’s top factories in industries as wide-ranging as batteries, semiconductors, consumer electronics, and car parts for inspiration and insights on how to build a world-class biofacturing company. Among their key insights: it’s how people and machines work together in a flexible way that enables the world’s best manufacturers to produce responsive, market-oriented solutions.

With this insight, Will and his team built Reconfigurable Automation Carts, or RACs, a first-of-its-kind robotic system that is central to Zymergen’s technology platform. Simply put, RACs are like a bullet train for lab experiments, rapidly generating tremendous data insights in search of breakthrough products. RACs are built with off-the-shelf components, but Will’s team architected the system so that operators can configure them for an infinite range of workflows. Not only can RACs tackle diverse problems, but they can also do in weeks what usually takes years.

“With RACs, we increased throughput on a key workflow four-fold and reduced manual effort by 88% relative to an already fairly automated process,” says Will. That increase in efficiency freed people to think about higher-level problems and focus on other parts of the production process, further expanding the molecule-to-market pipeline.

Zymergen Automation Cart Front

A RAC unit equipped with the Labcyte Echo platform, which can move precise amounts of liquid by sound, reducing the need for disposable lab supplies.

“When we rolled out the first RACs, the majority of the folks in the lab were really excited,” says Will. “But there were a few people who wondered what it meant for their jobs. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for the team to see just how much automation improved their work, freeing them up to apply their talents to pursue other challenges.”

More support for the idea that automation is good for workers comes from a 2019 World Economic Forum report, which says machines will create 58 million more jobs than they displace by 2022.

Historically, the huge resources needed to pursue any single bio-based product limited companies to going after billion-dollar products to recoup their investments (think billion-dollar refineries and chemical plants). Automation changes that, Will says, “making more of the chemical space economically viable” and opening up a new industry category in biofacturing.

In other words, automation is a required ingredient to take synthetic biology from a boutique product industry to the driving force behind a new bioeconomy.

Predictably, the thought leaders at Davos concluded that people need new kinds of training and skills in an automation-driven world. Yet there’s no such thing as a degree in life sciences automation, and no single well-worn path to get there. Zymergen’s automation team may offer a glimpse of the bioeconomy’s future workforce: a blend of curious people from mechanical, software, biology, and other backgrounds, whose human potential is only strengthened by the power of automation.