Ever since initiatives like Industry 4.0 or Smart Manufacturing emerged, many people have raised their voice in concern of what will happen to the work force.
I will not deny that there will be changes, certain types of jobs will be lost and never return because they will be done entirely by new types of machines.
But this is not a new phenomenon. It has happened many times over the centuries.
Jobs disappear, new jobs appear
At the beginning of the 20th century, an army of workers was employed by huge steel and coal giants and in many regions, like the Ruhr area in Germany, the majority either worked as miners or in the steel smelters.
Today this is no longer the case. In the US in the 1800s, nearly 95% of the population was working in agriculture, today it is somewhere around 5%. Or take the development of trains. In the beginning, people had to shovel coal to keep the boiler running, and you had an engineer on board. Not to mention the support staff around the tracks who handled signaling and track connections. Today you have one person at the helm. The same is true for shipping.
Jobs being phased out and replaced with new professions is completely normal. It is part of the evolving world of work.
And this pending change is no different.
The real problem is not the ‘disappearing jobs’
The problem is not that companies want to use robots to help them produce more efficiently, faster and cheaper. We can’t stop this – we can’t forbid them to do so, even if organizations like unions would love to do just that.
The problem is, that we as a society have been become accustomed to the idea that there are jobs so boring, requiring no skill, which are so simple, that everybody can do them. And we use these jobs to occupy all the people we have given up on, so they are out of sight, but still count as being ‘employed’.
Of course, these are the jobs most likely to be taken over by robots. And it will happen whether we like it or not.
But what about jobs which require creativity, skill, flexibility and knowledge? These types of jobs will continue to increase in number.
Industry 4.0 will impact very few jobs
When you think about a company like Adidas which builds a factory using nearly 100% robots to make their shoes, you still need ‘shop-floor’ staff to maintain these robots, program them, do data analytics, solve problems, make improvements and optimize processes. The office floor employees will hardly be impacted – Adidas will still need HR, accounting, customer service, project teams, advertising departments, and so on.
So yes, certain jobs will be lost through Industry 4.0, but I am not sure that this is a bad thing. I would hate to have to do some of these repetitive, unthinking jobs that people are lamenting will disappear.
A few case studies
And despite all the hype about the new technology, there have already been cases where companies realize how inflexible the current technology really is. Two interesting examples are Mercedes Benz, which has been replacing industrial robots with human workers to meet the required high flexibility for their highly customizable S-Class.
The same is true for Jaguar in Birmingham, which I had the chance to visit in person, where only the creation of the outer body and the paint shop is highly automated, while the finishing is done entirely by human workers with only 2 robots for assistance. If you are interested, I recommend you have a look at their modern production facility with Jaguar Tours at Birmingham.
Industry 4.0 is more about collaboration between machine and human
The actual wave of laying of workers through technology is around for the last 20 years and is not a phenomenon of Industry 4.0. Automation technology is actually not the focus of Industry 4.0, it is the augmentation of automation technology with new features allowing for a more comfortable, easy and collaborative coexistence between machine and human.
Introducing “real” Industry 4.0 technology will allow companies to improve their growth because they are able to get more out of what they have not because of reducing what they have.
If a company uses Industry 4.0 as the excuse of buying automation technology to lay of workers now, he is actually late to that game.
More opportunities created by Industry 4.0
There are many other areas where we need more people than we have right now, like business intelligence analysts, programmers, mechanics or developers. And there will be more areas that we haven’t even begun to think about. Think back to the 1930s: Nobody could have dreamed of professions like business intelligence analysts, programmers or network architects.
The real issue that faces us, is that we need to educate employees and children to meet the needs of the future. We need to teach them not to become or want to employ mindless drones and armies of workers doing the same simple, repetitive tasks, day in, day out. We need to teach everyone how to think creatively, how to approach and solve problems, where to find knowledge, and we need to spend enough time on every student.
The impact on education
This naturally leads to individualized education. Of course, this will require more teachers, and possibly more specialized teachers. Yes, it will cost money, we must rethink the entire approach to education and how we understand work, and it requires us to accept that everybody has something they can contribute in their own way. It means no longer forcing people to become automatons, sewing the same stitch on a shoe, or plugging the same cable into a socket, over and over again on an assembly line.
Where are we headed?
The fear of creating millions of unemployed people with Industry 4.0 is unfounded. Or rather, we can do something to prevent the problem from even arising.
We must make a decision: Do we want to sit on the sidelines, let the next industrial revolution unfold, and only then deal with the aftermath, like we did in the past?
Or do learn from our past mistakes, and do something about it right now? I mean, we are aware that this is coming, and that we can’t avoid it!
There is one good thing about the current “industrial revolution”, it is one not solely directed by the industrial giants. Everyone can contribute to this revolution, because this time, it’s not just about production, it is about how we develop products and services, how we interact with them, how we educate and train, and how we function as a society.
It is about how we can (and should) shape our future, because we all create the Industry 4.0 and Smart Manufacturing Solutions of the future.