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Don’t fear the evolution: the social implications of 4IR

25 May, 2017

How do you feel about smart manufacturing? Are you confident that it is the way forward? Or perhaps anxious about the effect it will have on you and your business? Smart Machines & Factories reports.

No doubt some of the greatest speculation is coming from those who perceive that robotics, A.I., and the Internet of Things may soon be having an irrevocable, negative impact on their livelihoods.

Everyone’s aware of this – Bill Gates, in an interview with Quartz magazine, said that governments “should tax companies’ use of robots, as a way to at least temporarily slow the spread of automation and to fund other types of employment”.

Meanwhile PricewaterhouseCoopers published a report in March that said up to 30% of existing UK jobs are susceptible to automation from robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) by the early 2030s – although in many cases “the nature of jobs will change rather than disappear”. Manufacturing was one of the sectors singled out as most likely to be affected by this paradigm shift.

All of this indicates that the effect of robotics on the engineering profession and industry is inevitable. CEO of the Engineering Employers’ Federation Terry Scuoler agrees that there will be “fundamental changes”.

“I don’t think we’re facing a cliff edge, but I do think there will be a transition period here”, he says. “Nonetheless, with the drive of technology, that transition period may be shorter than any of us would think.

“Clearly, there are going to be jobs lost, and there are going to be jobs created. One of the questions I hear from anyone who cares about society is: ‘what comes first?’

“Looking at Germany, for example, they had 800,000 jobs lost but with 1.5 million created. The timing of that could have a very significant impact on the job market and indeed those representatives of those employees who lose their jobs”.

Tanuja Randery, President of Schneider Electric UK & Ireland, agrees that this change is going to come. However, her view is that it is one we should be embracing out of necessity.

“If you see where our company comes from in terms of bringing electricity to everybody, if we see what’s happening with digitisation, and if we consider that there’s going to be a city the size of Paris built every 7 years – you’ve got to realise that the only way we’re going to accomplish our goal as an organisation is to drive IoT”, she says. “Think about the fact that we’re all having to cut costs and inflation is rising, while productivity is getting harder and harder to get to”.

So an expected shake-up of the engineering profession would seem to be a dominant opinion – but one person that doesn’t completely agree is Chris Pack, Field Product Manager of Industrial and Infrastructure Segment at Eaton Electric.

“It will of course be important for companies like Eaton to develop solutions for the machine building industry that will enable end-users to manage their daily tasks seamlessly and with the same ease as using a smartphone”, he says. “However, the fourth industrial revolution will provide huge amounts of data in the future about machine health and maintenance and it would be inefficient for each and every operator to be upskilled sufficiently to analyse everything”.

Pack believes that a crucial part of helping the progress of Industry 4.0 in Britain is clarity.

“Industry as a whole needs to share more information about how Industry 4.0 is being applied in practice within real-world industrial applications”, he adds. “By doing so, more machine builders and end-users will be persuaded to start adopting the technologies that are now available”.

Giving people a tangible reason to engage with the Fourth Industrial Revolution is a salient point – fostering an understanding of its effect and what needs to be done can go a long way towards allaying any fears.

For Tanuja, it’s all about presenting how the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be able to improve both our work and personal lives.

“I think IoT is amazing because it’s going to allow us as human beings to be more productive”, she says. “It’s going to allow us to be more productive in a smart manner rather than just a ‘hard’…I personally believe that the human brain is so complex that the chances of automating it 100% is almost impossible.

“However, in our daily lives maybe 30% could be more effective with some sort of automation - and that would give me quality time with my children, with my team…that’s going to drive wellbeing and performance in organisations, which we are absolutely desperate to get linked up.

“I think we spend too much time worrying about robots taking over our jobs. There’s an enormous amount of productivity lost because we don’t have robots, and I think we will coexist”.

This positivity is echoed by Terry Scuoler, who is all in favour of the potential that this evolution has for creating what might essentially be more highly qualified jobs. But the key question, as he puts it, is this:

“Do we currently have the skills to feed that growing market, and if so how do we go about training them?”

That points us in the direction of education, which is intrinsically linked with the social consequences of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In order to have a workforce that knows how to handle the technology, we need to be encouraging the engineers of the future to explore the endless possibilities of STEM subjects. They must know the role that they can play at the leading edge of British manufacturing.

A recent Attitudes to UK Industry report found that one in every six 18-24 year olds felt that industrial jobs are mainly dirty, repetitive, and unskilled. Less than half were convinced that high levels of automation will make UK manufacturing competitive.

Terry Scuoler believes that although the engineering profession is “slowly winning the battle of image”, factory work as we currently know it may become a different beast altogether in the future.

“The young men and women coming in to support this transformation will be highly computer literate – maybe they won’t be working in the factory or office environment”, he says. “Perhaps they’ll be working from home. They will certainly not be wearing the collar and tie - it’ll be a different work regime.

“Robots and digitisation will be 24 hours a day 7 days a week, therefore the days of 9-5 may change…so it’s not just the technical skills that we need to develop”.

Scuoler says that the way forward in terms of training these future generations is a “seamless” combination of vocational and traditional academic training.

“I do value enormously the vocational route of learning on the job supported by first-class academic support of training”, he says. “The day of the so-called blue-collar technician and white-collar graduate engineer must be consigned to the bin.

“When young men and women come out of university, if it’s a purely academic qualification they’ve got…it takes another two or three years for those engineering graduates to be fully effective in the workplace. It’s got to be vocational training, on-the-job training, linked to strong academic qualifications.”

Chris Pack concurs with this opinion, citing like many others the substantial part that data will play in the factory of the future.

“There has been a realisation both from the public and private sector in recent years of the need to encourage more young people to pursue STEM-related careers”, he says. “The increasing adoption of Industry 4.0 will require skilled professionals capable of seamlessly using Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) in the future.

“We are encouraged by the government’s introduction of the apprenticeship levy…[but] there is always the room for further investment in STEM-related schemes and we would encourage the UK government to keep this at the heart of their industrial and educational strategy going forward”.

Investment is a key word. Without it, Industry 4.0 will flounder in the UK. Much has been said about the need to encourage risk-taking in innovation, and it has already proven successful in Germany. For Tanuja, though, it’s about not just taking risks in terms of technology, but people as well.

“Why do we only need to hire engineers? Technology is one thing – you can learn it, most of us can learn it”, she says. “On the other hand it’s management, working with people, it’s inspirational leadership – these things don’t mean that you have to have engineering degrees, you can have a history degree or a geography degree or an arts degree.

“I think one of the things we’ve got to do as a company is expand the size of the market that we’re hunting in for women…and of course, you want to pick women on merit.

“In fact you want to pick any person on merit, but I think there’s a level of risk you have to take in encouraging that transformation…someone may be slightly less qualified – but that’s fine. I think it’s good to recruit based on attitude rather than CV”.

This isn’t to say Randery doesn’t prioritise financial investment in education and enterprise on a national scale – she is completely behind it.

“I think by using technology we can prevent the loss of jobs to other countries, the UK could become a very powerful economy”, she adds. “But we must invest, the UK needs to invest in digital big time. All the money that’s being talked about needs to be put into digital.

“Create that backbone, make sure we’ve got all the wireless connections, make sure our universities are set up to train the new ones on technologies. In our companies we worry about gender but we also worry about getting ‘digital natives’ into the company.

“How do we attract them? Not with tech alone, but by showing how it drives innovation, disruption, performance, wellbeing”.

What does this all mean? Primarily, that we have to foster a culture of understanding. Creating a sort of 4IR-grassroots movement will help to generate interest from the ground up, rather than trying to forcibly impose it from the top down. Scuoler, Randery, Pack – they all agree that education is going to be vital for mobilising our future workforce towards a common goal.

That goal goes by many names – Industry 4.0, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the Industrial Internet of Things – and perhaps that is one aspect of it that helps us understand why for some there is a considerable degree of ambiguity surrounding what is, in truth, a universal concept. For those who are completely unfamiliar, the technology with all its myriad forms and functions can seem a bit bewildering.

Also, for those who do not have a comprehensive knowledge of the subject, smart manufacturing might still seem like a bit of a gamble. However, both of these fears need to be disproven. The myths must be dispelled. If the next phase of industry is presented as a force for good, and those who will be affected by it are confident in their awareness of its impact on their lives, then we can look ahead and embrace the evolution.

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