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Automation, Robotics, Ai, Iot, IioT, and no doubt numerous other acronyms will be the buzz words in the factories of the future. Some of you may have heard of these terms before, the rest of you will be over the coming years.
With the rapid rate at which technology is changing and shaping lives, it was only a matter of time before manufacturers and engineers felt the changes start to ripple through their industries. Whilst some people don’t like change, it is a fact we are going to have to accept and adapt to these changes in order to maximise the effectiveness of the workplace.
It’s no lie that these changes have the potential to completely transform the way we work over the next decade but rather than take a Luddite approach to the changes, we need to be noting the risks and figuring out how we will adapt to the future of manufacturing.
All sounding a little bit alarmist so far? Perhaps we need to be to ensure we do not charge into the future blindly, ultimately leading to detrimental changes to the workforce. Some of Science and Industries biggest names and thinkers, including people such as celebrated physics professor Stephen Hawking, have also stated our need to be cautious with the technological developments in the workplace and if a national treasure like Stephen says so, then maybe we need to stop, listen and think. So what are these changes and how will they affect the future workplace?
Robotics & Automation
Possibly the most fear inducing out of the lot due to certain movies depicting a dystopian future in which robots have taken over/destroyed the world. One could argue it’s only natural for humans to be cautious, after the industrial revolution in the early 1800’s led to workers being replaced by machines, we as humans are only too aware of the personal economical stresses that can be caused by machines replacing humans on the work floor. This can be further compounded by the current uncertainty of the economic climate surrounding things such as Brexit.
So what benefits can robotics and automation bring to the workplace? The obvious benefit, and no doubt one of the driving factors behind the charge to bring these technologies to the forefront is productivity and wealth. Automation will enable factories to boost output through increased productivity, after all a machine doesn’t need work breaks and can work all day every day if needed. Increased productivity will inevitably lead to higher profits and greater wealth for the factory owners.
A recent study by PwC has suggested up to 46% of the manufacturing workforce are at risk from Robotics and Automation replacing them. Whilst this is an alarming figure, it can be offset by the additional employment opportunities created by these new technologies. After all, someone needs to design them, build them and operate them.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) & the Industrial Internet of Things (IioT)
Another development that is closely linked to robotics and automation is Artificial Intelligence. As with the previous topic, AI has the ability to boost productivity and wealth for the factory owners.
Early robotics were very simple machines that could only carry out a single task, with the advent and development of AI these robots can now perform a variety of very intricate tasks with a minimal margin for error. It also allows them to make production decisions in real time which can save millions of pounds in recalls, repairs and lost business.
Coupled with the IioT this will give greater interconnectivity between devices, machines and systems which will create numerous operational and customer benefits. It will also help create a leaner more economic approach to manufacturing. Smart factories now and of the future will be networked with sensors collecting data relating to everything from supply chains to production lines, creating a highly intelligent integrated system.
Risk and Reward
So we have a general idea of what to expect from the smart factories of the future but how do we cope with such a monumental change to the working lives and capabilities of employees? As mentioned earlier, Humans have a somewhat cautious approach to such technological advances due to memory of how such massive changes have impacted society as a whole in the past, and the effects are not solely limited to the workplace. The knock on effects to society could be catastrophic if these changes are not managed correctly.
Apart from the obvious risks of major wealth inequality arising from less people working and factory owners increasing their profits, there’s a high chance of wealth accumulating in the hands of a small minority. The reduction of workers in the factory could lead to mass unemployment of labourers across the board. This was put rather succinctly by Stephen Hawking in a Guardian article “The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.”
Mr Hawking also commented on the future of AI and expressed concerns about the ability of Artificial Intelligence to overtake and replace humans arguing its development could spell the end of the human race as it would not be constrained by the timely biological evolution that humans endure. It would be able to redesign itself at an ever increasing rate which humans could neither recreate nor keep up with.
Whilst all that may sound alarmist, it’s best to proceed with caution when developing these technologies. That’s not to say everyone will be replaced though. Whilst AI can do a lot of things, it wouldn’t affect roles involving elements of emotional care, creativity or of a supervisory capacity. The effect AI, Robotics and so forth will have will vary from industry to industry and sector to sector depending on the needs of the workplace.
The best way for us to approach this is to ensure that we, as a society, ensure that opportunities are created for people to prepare and adapt to the modern world. A key currency in this ever changing industrial landscape will be education, in particular the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) as these will be in high demand for Smart Factories of the future and the new opportunities they create. Reskilling will also be essential for those being left behind in this ever increasing digital economy as certain skills may become obsolete or unemployable in the future.
The roll out of the Smart Factory may also be hindered by economic or regulatory constraints. Governments will need to review policies to ensure that the changes don’t adversely affect large swathes of the workforce and leave them behind. Governments can also ensure a fairer distribution of the wealth generated by these new systems as well as the speed at which they are implemented. But we can’t take too long, adaptability and innovation are the key to keeping ahead of the curve and these things cannot be done at a leisurely pace in such a rapidly changing world.
And what of the future?
The long term effects of these changes are difficult to quantify as we quite simply don’t know. There are reports that predict major unemployment levels and the decimation of working and middle class jobs as well as rising inequality but they will only happen if we let them. Because we have foreseen the potential devastation such technological advances could cause, we would be foolish to ignore them.
If we can manage these issues then there should be no cause for concern at what the future holds. The main aim of technology is to make our lives easier and reduce risk. Perhaps the removal of unskilled labour by technology will allow people to follow other dreams they may have had in the past. Maybe it will make all aspects of our lives better, maybe it will make it possible that no-one has to work again…. ever and still receive a Universal Basic Income (that’s a subject for another day), and we can all just lead our lives in the pursuit of happiness, having all our needs attended to by our army of robot slaves….. Or Vice Versa!
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