Industry 4.0 is the next phase in the digitalisation of the manufacturing sector, driven by four key aspects: data, automation, analytics and human-machine interaction. By upgrading factories to incorporate new and emerging technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and blockchain, as well as augmented and virtual reality, manufacturers can streamline operations and boost productivity. Smart factories mean more intelligent, efficient processes which will keep manufacturing relevant, successful, and competitive. It will also keep the 86% of manufacturers believing that digital technologies will enable them to serve their customers more effectively.

But a recent OECD study suggests 12% of UK jobs have a high risk of being replaced by machines over the next 20 years, with manufacturing roles among those at most significant risk of automation. So, are robots and cobots really set to replace humans and what can manufacturers do to reap the rewards of Industry 4.0 without displacing their staff?

Technology can complement rather than replace

The fear Industry 4.0 will result in mass redundancies is very real, but for the majority of workers it will mean change rather than loss. By automating routine, repetitive, labour-intensive tasks, new technologies will significantly change the way jobs are carried out. This won’t necessarily mean reducing the workforce but it will make factories far more productive, with workers using their time to perform tasks to which they are more suited than machines, using innately human skills such as creativity, supported by innovative technologies.

In addition, Industry 4.0 will create new job roles that didn’t previously exist, such as user-interface designers or robot coordinators. Research from Deloitte indicates that between 2000 and 2015 around 800,000 lower-skilled jobs were lost due to technological developments. However, 3.5 million new higher-skilled job roles were created in their place, each paying an average of £10,000 more than those that were lost.

Although the adoption of new technologies will largely complement rather than replace the human workforce, and will create new job roles, manufacturers will still need to consider how they evolve their factories to thrive in the digital age without having a detrimental effect on their employees. Here are three ways to ensure a smooth transition:

1. Implement a long-term strategy

While embracing Industry 4.0 is essential, automation won’t happen overnight but requires a measured and considered approach. Manufacturers can start by evaluating their existing business, understanding areas of digital strength or weakness, and determining which systems or mechanisms can be improved and built upon, or which need to be replaced. They should identify specific end-to-end processes where the implementation of new technologies will achieve the greatest long-term benefits, rather than looking for short-term wins. When implementing new technologies manufacturers should explore a variety of solutions and weigh up the specific costs and benefits to the business, rather than simply following industry trends, and should then employ continuous testing to ensure the transition stays on track. A gradual transition will help build workforce trust in new technologies and create understanding of why they are necessary.

2. Focus on training and development

Working alongside new technologies will bring different skill requirements, and the changing nature of job roles in automated factories will inevitably require an emphasis on retraining and upskilling workers. Manufacturers will need to implement continuous training and development programmes, taking into account that the workers most significantly impacted by automation may well be feeling de-motivated, and need to retrain from a basic level. By providing appropriate and realistic retraining as well as social support to workers whose jobs have disappeared or dramatically changed will be a key responsibility for manufacturers.

3. Put the right people in place

Transitioning to new technologies requires commitment from all levels of the business, so appointing an individual at exec-level to lead and champion digital transformation is essential. While upskilling the existing workforce to operate alongside new technologies should be the key focus, outside expertise in specific technologies will almost certainly need to be brought in. This will be either permanently or temporarily, to allow the sharing of knowledge and new skills and to make the most effective use of innovation.

Industry 4.0 brings exciting opportunities to the UK manufacturing industry, and while emerging technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence will undoubtedly have a disruptive impact on the workforce, this doesn’t necessarily mean widespread job loss. By taking a measured, long-term approach to automation, upskilling employees to work alongside machines rather than being replaced by them, and bringing in the necessary expertise, manufacturers can create more efficient, productive factories without making their workers obsolete.

By Dominic Fahy, Head of Architecture, Engineering, Construction & Manufacturing, Canon