The sentiment that work is a “necessary evil” is something that has become ingrained in popular culture, uniting peers in a common struggle. It’s true that some people see work as a way to provide for ourselves and our families – to paraphrase Cuba Gooding Jr’s character in Jerry Maguire it’s all about getting business to ‘show me the money!’. However, recent studies suggest that work involving more employee control – and therefore increased employee engagement – are perceived to be less “job –like”.
When considering the type of careers that may offer this extra involvement, a factory job may not immediately spring to mind. Factory jobs often don’t have the best perception and are associated with terms such as labour intensive, repetitive, time consuming and demanding. But factory work is evolving and innovation in automation is changing the way we work. Jobs that give workers a chance to put more of themselves into the products they make, enable quality craftsmanship and add value for those who buy the products and the workers themselves will come back into play.
Automation as an enabler and creator
As we enter the internet-enabled Industry 4.0, robots are bearing the brunt of the latest “technology is replacing us” scare. Elon Musk famously caused a storm on Twitter last year when he called for greater regulations for robotics and AI to prevent them replacing the human workforce.
Despite these warnings, studies show that technological advances - including those that give rise to industrial revolutions - are actually net job creators. In my own experience at Universal Robots, I have seen how automation technology creates jobs; in fact, the factories that have deployed our collaborative robots have tended to significantly increase headcount, not reduced it. However, there will be a certain amount of displacement involved as automation does make some tasks redundant. These will most likely be local losses, which need to be dealt with through targeted job training and other initiatives in order to upskill the workforce and place them into new roles. If these initiatives are not implemented alongside automation within factories, then this will lead to unrest and undo progress by encouraging further fear of technology.
Making jobs mindful not mindless
The best way to analyse the impact of automation on factory jobs is to look at individuals ‘tasks’ rather than trying to understand the impact on ‘jobs’ in general. According to a recent article by Harvard Business Review on automated tasks, between 20% and 80% of a given job can involve automatable tasks, but no jobs are 100% automatable. So, while some jobs may be disrupted more than others, no entire job will disappear due to automation. People must remember that in the long run, automation will allow humans to have the capacity to deal with more complex jobs that require human brainpower.
For example, if a robot is employed within a factory to screw four exact holes into the same size sheet of plastic continuously all day this actually benefits the human worker in multiple ways. It saves human workers from performing a continuous and boring task, from developing repetitive strain injuries and
frees up their time for a more complex job, perhaps in administration, management or quality assurance. All while the robot benefits the business by increasing productivity, efficiency and quality.
The return of the human touch - Industry 5.0
However, Industry 4.0 is not just about factory automation. Those who think the logical conclusion is the ‘lights out factory’ which runs around the clock without human involvement must also consider another factor; growing consumer demand for personalized goods that demand human involvement. These
products aren't traditional handcrafted goods but can only be made using sophisticated manufacturing techniques.
The type of factory needed to produce such goods at scale and cost that makes production economically feasible, will depend on technology...but not technology operating without human involvement in a lights-out factory. It will be technology that collaborates with workers and, where the human touch is
involved. Robots will serve as a tool that ultimately enable workers to contribute the value they add to the product. This type of manufacturing is what we define as Industry 5.0.
The workers who will be needed in Industry 5.0 setups will need to add a particular value to the product in question. This doesn't mean that they need to be a doctor or a rocket scientist but they must have expertise in an area that is required to give the product the degree of human touch that the market
requires. This may be a special understanding and experience with the materials and manufacturing processes, or they may just be experts in the practice of creativity. What will not be needed is workers who spend their days performing boring, repetitive, or dangerous tasks; robots and other machinery can
and will do this work better. One thing is for sure - the days of the old-school Ford assembly line worker will be a thing of the past.