Rob Childe of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said a report published earlier this year by the World Economic Forum (WEF) (40-page / 3.55MB PDF) highlights the need for manufacturers to focus as much on maximising the potential of employees as they do on automating processes to be successful in the fourth industrial revolution, or 'industry 4.0' as it has become known.
"Increasing productivity, through adopting new technologies, creates an opportunity for manufacturers to operate more efficiently," Childe said. "Employees, both existing and new, have a significant role to play in the success of introducing new technology. This is not a case of simply replacing the existing workforce with automated processes or robots, albeit we have to accept that through automation there will be some reduction in workforce. The question is how manufacturers can utilise an existing workforce and upskill or reskill them to be successful in the use of new technologies."
"The findings of this report, from around the world, show how some of the most advanced industry 4.0 plants are using their workforce. The people are learning new skills and working in a new way and are being more productive. The jobs will be far more interesting, because they will be doing work that is more creative. It will be about them connecting to others and making things happen in the total system. This adds more value and is more enjoyable," he said.
The WEF report identified 16 manufacturing sites as "world leaders in the successful adoption and integration of the cutting-edge technologies" of industry 4.0. It said those 'manufacturing lighthouses', located across continents and in different sub-sectors of manufacturing such as life sciences and automotive, "embody nine common distinguishing characteristics".
One common feature is that the manufacturers are each "injectors of human capital", the report said.
"Contrary to widespread concerns about worker displacement, the lighthouse factories are not deploying fourth industrial revolution technology to replace operators," the report said. "A McKinsey report suggests that fewer than 5% of occupations consist of activities that are 100% automatable with today’s technology, while 62% of occupations have at least 30% of automatable tasks. Consequently, employees in production enjoy a working routine that is becoming less repetitive and more interesting, diversified and productive. Employees at all career stages enjoy new tasks and responsibilities that demand the human skill of dynamic decision-making in a changing environment."
The WEF report recommended that manufacturers seeking to embrace the potential of industry 4.0 technologies should look to adopt technology that augments, and not replace, workers, and that they should further "invest in capability-building and lifelong learning".
"Factories should deploy technologies that allow the human operators to focus on the most value-adding activities, where the human skills of decision-making and adaptability to new situations brings most value – and, at the same time, create a more attractive workplace," the report said.
"The fourth industrial revolution in manufacturing will change many job profiles and displace workers within and between organisations. The private and public organisations must prepare the workforce for this transition, retool the education system and invest in training as well as lifelong learning to create a mobile workforce that can benefit from the opportunities related to the fourth industrial revolution. This will not only help workers, but also provide benefits to the companies since a shortage of skills is the most frequent barrier preventing scale-up of technologies," it said.