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Rise of the machines: Why automation is an opportunity not a threat

Richard Heaton, lead consultant at Jonathan Lee Recruitment

The rise in news stories surrounding the fourth industrial revolution form two distinct camps of opinion; one of opportunity and one of threat. Those more optimistic report the advantages of Industry 4.0 concepts including automation, artificial intelligence, 3D printing or the digital twin. The development of artificial intelligence and particularly the threat that increasing automation will have on the UK’s workforce form the second camp.

It is no surprise that the topic has created high profile media speculation – the reported potential loss of tens of thousands of jobs is a terrifying prospect, particularly if your job is set to be replaced by High Level Machine Intelligence (HLMI), achieved when unaided machines accomplish a task better and more cost-effectively than humans.

However, while many tasks such as loading, unloading and bagging may soon be completed using robotics and automation, it’s important to consider that HLMI could, rather than threaten employment, simply change the landscape of the jobs market and potentially create a range of interesting new roles.

The automation of manufacturing operations and processes, which forms one part of the fourth industrial revolution, will see improved accuracy, quality, repeatability and productivity. But to be truly effective, it requires the upskilling and diversification of the workforce, providing an opportunity for workers to train in alternative disciplines such as robotic engineering, scada engineering, data analytics, multi-skilled maintenance / fitters and PLC programming.

3D printing, otherwise known as additive manufacturing, is becoming a recognised method of manufacturing in its own right - enabling a more agile and flexible approach to manufacturing, with the potential to meet opportunities such as mass customisation and small batch manufacturing. Once again, the technology will only progress with experts behind the scenes to plan, design, operate, manage and maintain the equipment.

With these new production models come changes to the skill sets required. The fourth industrial revolution offers career opportunities that are varied and interesting. For example, in the future we will see experts in the field of the ‘digital twin’, when a physical production line or plant is replicated digitally. It promises a very different and innovative way of working, so much so that it was named one of Gartner’s top ten strategic technology trends for 2017. The use of a digital twin enables businesses to overcome barriers to innovation by trialling technology virtually before investing in physical updates and alterations.

Rather than having a workforce of manual operators, manufacturing will use more robotics and automation for routine, repetitive and even dangerous tasks, but present a substantial opportunity to upskill the workforce in new areas to manage and maintain new manufacturing operations and processes. The potentially displaced workforce will simply be evolving and adapting, fulfilling new – previously non-existent – jobs, while HLMI will do the simple tasks that unskilled workers have historically undertaken.

It’s also important to consider these innovations from a consumer perspective. The implementation of Industry 4.0 processes has the potential to cut production costs and minimise waste, increase the speed turnaround, allow for complete customisation, whilst potentially reduce the price of goods. There is speculation that a reduction in cost could have a positive impact on the economy, with the UK population having more disposable income to purchase additional products and services, which in turn could drive demand for more workers to fill the roles that cannot be automated.

These are exciting times to be working within creative, forward-thinking, fast-evolving environments. Savvy businesses will be adopting new practices and making changes within the workforce. It is important for businesses that want to not only survive but thrive to plan ahead and ensure they have the innovative technology, the inspiring leadership and the workforce in place needed to take advantage of the opportunities.

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