Conceptualising the robotisation of manufacturing work: A thematic analysis of the literature using soft systems thinking as lens

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Purpose: The introduction of robots as value-adding “workers” on the shop floor triggers complex changes to manufacturing work. Such changes involve highly entangled relationships between technology, organisation and people. Understanding such entanglements requires a holistic assessment of contemporary robotised manufacturing work, to anticipate the dynamically emerging opportunities and risks of robotised work. Design/methodology/approach: A systematic literature review of 87 papers was conducted to capture relevant themes of change in robotised manufacturing work. The literature was analysed using a thematic analysis approach, with Checkland’s soft systems thinking as an analytical framework. Findings: Based on the literature analysis, the authors present a systemic conceptualisation of robotised manufacturing work. Specifically, the conceptualisation highlights four entangled themes of change: work, organisation of labour, workers’ (experiences) and the firm’s environment. Moreover, the authors discuss the complex patterns of interactions between these objects as relationships that defy straightforward cause–effect models. Practical implications: The findings draw attention to complex interactions between robotisation and manufacturing work. It can, therefore, inform strategic decisions and support projects for robotisation from a holistic perspective. Originality/value: The authors present a novel approach to studying and designing robotised manufacturing work as a conceptual system. In particular, the paper shifts the focus towards crucial properties of the system, which are subject to complex changes alongside the introduction of robot technology in manufacturing. Soft systems thinking enables new research avenues to explain complex phenomena at the intersection of robotisation and manufacturing work.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Manufacturing Technology Management
Number of pages22
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024


  • Manufacturing
  • Robotisation
  • Soft systems


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