By Anand Birje, Senior Corporate Vice President – Digital & Analytics, HCL Technologies.
Through an explosion of wireless connectivity across production systems, Industry 4.0 has redefined businesses and fundamentally changed manufacturing and other core industries.
There’s been a large shift, with the Federation of Robotics reporting that in 2020 there will be more than three million industrial robots on factory floors across the world. Through mechanisation, early instances of automation, and digitisation, machines are now able to communicate with each other and with their operators, taking non-critical, repetitive tasks off human hands as labour costs rise and the cost of robots continues to fall.
This is having a real impact, with Deloitte stating that manufacturing productivity will increase threefold as a result. Smart machines and robots, in conjunction with digitised operating models, are poised to effectively unlock the capabilities of the manual workforce and accelerate business value creation. This continued rise to prominence of machines begs the question – are humans still relevant?
The next step – Industry 5.0
As technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and analytics mature, we will begin to move towards Industry 5.0. While Industry 4.0 put intelligent systems at the forefront of manufacturing, the next step will see a focus on driving collaboration between these systems and their creators. Simply put, machines will make human lives even easier, but for this to happen, they must be taught how to collaborate.
So far, machines have been successful in deciphering structured data, such as phone numbers and postcodes. Using AI, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Structured Query Language (SQL), they have even been able to take the next step and begin to analyse it. This has made tasks like inventory management and invoice generation much easier for manufacturers, allowing them to speed up and eliminate errors.
However, unstructured data such as text files, online behavior, satellite imagery and sensor data are more difficult to analyse. Not for long, though - with further advancements in cognitive computing, AI-powered robots will be able to analyse and learn from unstructured data as well. In doing so, machines can become increasingly self-sufficient. These “cobots” just need a helping hand from humans first, providing them with algorithms that can replicate human perceptions, understanding, and tendencies, while retaining the decision-making discretion.
Co-working with robots
If machines can take over almost all repetitive tasks, humans can turn their attentions to perception-driven decision making. One example of this in practice is design thinking – a human-centered initiative that uses technology and machines, but still needs humans for decisions and creativity. Digital twinning is also starting to show tangible results, leading the responsibilities of humans and machines to become demarcated.
In industry, additive manufacturing is another perfect example of how human-machine harmony can improve operational efficiency. Here, cyber-physical systems use IoT, big data, and cloud computing to create virtual 3D models of products for analysis and fine-tuning before they are manufactured. This is all driven by the seamless communication that can now take place between the various machines and their operators.
Industry 5.0 won’t just impact manufacturers – other industries including healthcare and retail can also reap the rewards, while other business functions/teams including supply chain management and compliance will also feel the benefit.
Wider societal impacts of a mechanised workforce
By nature, humans are wary of a change in status quo, and the very notion of disruption can evoke scepticism. With machines growing in importance and mastering human tasks with ease, there is of course a threat of job loss. Automation is aimed at standardising and maximising output while minimising costs, so it is worth considering the impact on wages. With decreasing robotics prices and increasing human wages, societies may need to take action, for example considering a Universal Basic Income (UBI) that can compensate for the reduction of bargaining power of the human workforce.
Beyond wages, the human workforce also needs welfare benefits, breaks, and sick leave, while automated assets need only occasional repair and upgrade. The idea of automation paying for UBI is a futuristic one, but is eminently implementable. Of course this also paves the way for a myriad of concerns such as mass lay-offs and unemployment, which is a key reason why leaders in the technology space are urging businesses to proceed with caution. The engine of progress cannot be stopped, but with planning and foresight, we can take steps to ensure that it works for the betterment of society.
Collaboration, not conflict
Collaboration – not conflict – with machines is the way forward. Humans must also be prepared to upskill themselves to remain the rightful “masters of the machines.” Human roles will evolve alongside those of machines, in turn creating new jobs and opportunities. As a recent report pointed out, the arrival of machines has not dissuaded organisations from hiring more humans: while the German automotive industry saw 17% growth in the number of robots installed between 2010 and 2015, the number of employees hired also increased. We must look beyond our worries and cynicism, and realise that humans and machines will shape the future together.
One of the primary focus points for forward-looking organisations should be investing in upskilling the human workforce. The right combination of technology and knowledge will be the key differentiator for organisations of the future. In order to use the full potential of technology and the human talent pool, organisations must review their working styles, with a digital, device-driven world making it possible for humans to work remotely, enjoy flexible, trust-based working hours, and have the option of job sharing.
The bottom line is that there is nothing to fear from Industry 5.0: jobs such as elemental technology development and design thinking demand a capacity of craftsmanship and imagination which cannot be replicated by even the smartest of machines.