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Industry 4.0: Jobs for the future?

Where do you invest in the age of the smart factory with the increasing use of robots and artificial intelligence? 

“We are star stuff harvesting sunlight.” ― Carl Sagan

The manufacturing process is undergoing a change so radical that it has been termed the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. The introduction of steam power in the late 18th century famously brought about the first industrial revolution; the second came with the introduction of assembly production and electricity in the 19th and 20th centuries, while the third came with the arrival of computers and automation. The fourth step is the digitisation of the whole manufacturing process, integrating all automated factory floor systems with sales, marketing, suppliers and clients.

It’s also known as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which is the application to the industrial sector of the web-based and digital technologies. IIoT creates a digital supply chain, with smart manufacturing and digitally designed products; it gives companies powerful data analysis tools; and connects machines with each other and with humans in real time. The result is the “smart factory”, which makes full use of the data flow to increase efficiency, productivity and reduce costs. Industrial companies that adapt quickest will be the first to see opportunities for growth.

“We are star stuff harvesting sunlight.” ― Carl Sagan

The data flow from the factory floor can be integrated with sales, marketing and other partners in ways that will bring synergies, greater efficiency and radically cut out waste. Forecasting becomes much more exact: where previously manufacturing operated separately from marketing, sales, suppliers and other partners, Industry 4.0 enables the different parts of the manufacturing process to be integrated, making operational challenges and variations much more transparent, and forecasting much more predictive and accurate. 

Maintenance becomes predictive too, allowing the machine-servicing programme to anticipate problems, thus minimising any machine downtime caused by glitches and breakdowns. 

A recurring fear is that robots will replace humans, but this fear is not new. Nor is it a zero sum game. The invention of the steam engine in 1781 caused riots because people feared for their jobs, but created a whole new sector — the railways — with new jobs for machine operators and engineers. Today, as companies increase their use of robots, they may also be redeploying staff to other areas of growth in their business. 

It’s too early to say exactly how far this latest revolution will go. It is a fair bet that, as before, humans will still be needed to mind the machines. Where, in the past, automation and machinery displaced manual labour, today the fear is that the increasing use of robots and artificial intelligence may displace more skilled roles. Effectively, the robot minders will have to have more specialist qualifications in IT systems and engineering. The smart factory will also be offering higher value roles such as data scientists, solutions architects, computer engineers, robot supervisors and user interface/user experience designers — all requiring a combination of skills in engineering, software development and implementation. 

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