The concept of industry 4.0 has been out there for many years. Right along with it has been the pervasive fear, for so many in our industry, that robots are going to replace people.
Why 4.0? Versus, say 3.0 or 5.0?
The first revolution in the industry was steam. Steam locomotives to change transportation. Steam-driven motors to transform manufacturing.
Next was 2.0. Electricity … mass production … Henry Ford and the affordable automobile.
Third, 3.0, was electronics. Computers becoming indispensable to almost every industry.
Industry 4.0 is all about Smart Manufacturing. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are major topics.
The big fear
Just over two hundred years ago the Luddites began smashing and breaking weaving machines. Opinions are mixed about their motives, but it was undeniably true that the industrial revolution was radically changing the nature of jobs, affecting the lives of workers everywhere.
Today the big fear is of robots replacing human workers. Factory workers in particular fear that their jobs may be on the way out – obsolete in the perceived New Factory, quietly populated by a handful of humans and an army of robots.
Here’s the thing. Factory employees – from line operators to shift supervisors to floor managers – are not slowly being replaced by Terminators – metal-based inhuman cyborgs. Instead, for decades, they’ve been morphing into Robo Cops.
Why RoboCop versus Terminator?
Today’s machines, and their associated software and systems help humans make better decisions. That’s more RoboCop than Terminator; the machinery doesn’t replace humans but rather raises their capabilities, makes them better able to do a good job.
Today’s best chess player isn’t a machine. It’s a human, aided by a machine. Already we have complex systems to help humans make better decisions. Soon the systems will be better yet. Line operators, maintenance staff and management will use new technology such as AR, on new and old devices such as smartphones, tablets and goggles, to make better choices.
Of course, change is a constant. The days where one human stayed with the same relatively unchanging job their entire career are at an end. People in the workplace will have to adapt, more and better than they had to do in centuries past. Change is hard, and that’s something that management and workers alike will have to be aware of and open to.
A happy example
I’m a hobby musician. My favourite brand of musical instrument has been around for close to 200 years, starting with a still-existing factory in the northeastern U.S.A. They’re world-renowned.
Not long ago, the CEO decided to start an additional factory in Mexico. The first thing they planned to move was the manufacture of the string for the instruments.
This move affected dozens of string workers in the original plant. The CEO was not eager to cut jobs, so he asked if they were willing to learn the art of making the body of the instruments – an art as much as a science, but made easier by new tools and systems.
The string workers said ‘yes.’ The strings are now made in Mexico, the original string workers are still employed making instrument bodies, and the brand continues to thrive.
The most valuable asset you have is your people. The better any given management understands that, the better they can manage change. Today the world is rich in sophisticated, powerful ways to help your people make better decisions.
Exceptions: safety, precision, and repetition
Of course, for certain tasks, such as painting automobile bodies, robots are a perfect choice. Not just because of the precision and repetition involved, but because of the safety. Paint fumes are dangerous. Robots don’t mind.
You already are Robo Cop
If you have a job, any job from line worker to CEO, in a factory today? You already are Robo Cop. You have sophisticated tools, devices and software to help you do your job better.
Unfortunately, you don’t have the super-cool outfit, the publicity team, the worldwide fame. But as time goes by, you’ll have smarter and smarter tools to augment your capabilities.
The most successful manufacturers will be those who can figure out how to augment the capabilities of their people with the best choices in tools, devices, processes and systems.