Industry 4.0

Industrial Revolution: Are Machines Taking Over?

| Author/ Editor: Rosemarie Stahl / Janina Seit

While many manufacturers are already automating their processes, or at least some of them, they may have bigger problems inviting their employees on the journey towards Industry 4.0. Many workers in the industry fear for their jobs. But do they have to? And how can manufacturers prepare their workforce for digitalisation?

The fear of a lot of workers: Machines making real people obsolete
The fear of a lot of workers: Machines making real people obsolete
( Source: Pixabay / CC0 )

While it is often relatively easy for manufacturers to implement automated processes, another part of manufacturing is harder to transform: Digital transformation does not only affect machines and their technical surroundings, it also influences the way we work. All in all, not every employee is looking forward to the future of manufacturing.

The greatest insecurity related to the topic of Industry 4.0 – besides data security – is probably the fear of jobs becoming obsolete. According to a recent survey by the International Data Corporation (IDC), many of the challenges companies have to face in their digitalisation process are related to the attitudes of employees. Besides technical and financial barriers like IT law and the lack of financial resources, many companies face real problems in connection with organisational structures.

One of these barriers is the cultural resistance to change. While 84% of European enterprise organisations are already on the path of digitalisation, 43% stated that the cultural resistance to change is a barrier to successful transformation, especially a disruptive one as this, the IDC survey states.

The fourth industrial revolution is called revolution for a reason. Its impact could be massive if it is carried out in full. Imagine an employee that has been operating machines for the last decade or two: How will he feel if he is assigned the task of monitoring a system that is able to operate more machines than he could have ever operated by himself? While he probably was proud of his expertise before, he now might feel like an assistant to a machine that does his job much better. Moreover, a couple of his colleagues might even have lost their jobs to the software behind it.

Understandably, the employee in this theoretic example will not welcome the digital transformation with open arms. If employees value their work today, it is a company’s duty to enable them to be proud of the way they work in the future, too. Companies have to react to the fears and insecurities of their employees early to keep them on board – especially skilled workers.

As for the fear of losing one's job: According to an analysis by McKinsey, 64% of manufacturing work today has the potential to be automated. That represents 237.4 million employees worldwide. The manufacturing sector has the second biggest potential of automation after agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. Those numbers sound devastating. But it is only one part of the truth. The biggest potential for automation exists in developing and emerging countries. The numbers are highest in countries such as China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. For European countries, the potential is much smaller. According to the Mc-Kinsey Global Institute, the manufacturing sector in Italy, for example, has 2.8 million jobs that can be automated; in Spain, 1.5 million. It is clear that workers need to look at numbers that apply to their own sector and nationality.

And those are numbers that do not take growth into account. Most companies that are able to automate their processes do not lay anybody off. Instead, they are able to receive and fill more orders. What they actually achieve is to invest in their own future and to take their employees with them, if they are able to.

Skilled and talented workers will be key factors in the future.
Skilled and talented workers will be key factors in the future.
( Source: Pixabay / CC0 )

Additional Information
How high is the risk of your job being automated?

The fear of losing jobs to machines is real. So real that a couple of media companies already offer online tools that calculate the risk of your job becoming obsolete. One example by the BBC can be found here:

BBC Automation risk calculator

A Skilled and Talented Workforce Is Key

According to the IDC survey, further barriers to Industry 4.0 are the lack of know-how, the inability to keep critical talent and skills, and the inability to find and develop talent and skills. Roughly a quarter of the respondents to the survey said they have a problem with each of those barriers. According to manufacturing associations, many European countries face the problem of skills shortage.

The number of young professionals choosing a career in the industry is not sufficient to fill empty positions, or at least not those that are offered. In the UK, for example, the Royal Academy of Engineering estimated that they would need to train 75,000 professional engineers every year until 2020 to meet the demand. At the time of this calculation, they were only creating 22,000 graduates annually. According to recent numbers from the Association of German Engineers, the number of unemployed engineers was only a third of the vacancies. The IDC survey concludes that, to overcome those barriers to Industry 4.0 rooted in the minds of industry employees, HR departments everywhere have to act without delay. If there is a skill shortage, it is inevitable that companies will have to make sure to keep the motivated and skilled workers they already have on board, even if it means that the employees might have to adapt to new roles.

Skilled or talented employees are the ones that companies can build their future growth on. Companies cannot afford to ignore one of their biggest potentials for digitalisation, that being their current workforce. Instead, they should invest early to make sure their workforce is as ready for Industry 4.0 as their machining equipment.


This article was first published by ETMM.

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