- The fourth industrial revolution is transforming manufacturing processes with the use of automated control systems.
- By educating society and preparing the workforce with new skills, we can allay fears about automation.
- Here are three reasons why automation is something to embrace.
Over 200 years ago, in the early 1800s, a series of riots broke out in the north of England. Weavers and textile workers in Nottingham and other cities, concerned about the effect the introduction of mechanized looms and knitting machines would have on their livelihoods, began to destroy the machines. The Luddites, as they were known, clashed with the British army on several occasions before the movement ended.
It’s never easy to come to terms with a quick change. Back then, it was the beginnings of the industrial revolution that caused discomfort. In the decades and centuries that have followed, the speed of technological change has rapidly increased, transforming manufacturing beyond recognition. We are now in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution – or “Industry 4.0” – and current factory production lines are filled with automated control systems, software, computer panels and robots.
It is important to recognize the concerns that industrial automation and concepts such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) may present for workers who are not trained in these areas and for poorer economies who do not have of the resources needed to improve its manpower force.
But equally, it’s important to understand the full and ever-expanding range of benefits of industrial automation. As the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted supply chains and manufacturing, it’s worth taking stock of why automation is something to welcome, not fear.
1. Industrial automation increases productivity
First, and perhaps most obvious, industrial automation enormously increases the productivity of activities, processes and activities in factories and workshops. Processes that once required armies of workers (think automobile manufacturing or food processing plants 20, 30, or 40 years ago) now involve a fraction of that manpower, an important consideration in the context of today’s supply problems and labor shortages resulting from slowing population growth in many parts of the world.
But it’s not just about cutting labor costs and doing more, faster. The digitization of manufacturing, and particularly the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), also means increased productivity and avoided downtime as machinery is used and maintained more efficiently. McKinsey estimates that using sensors on machinery reduces maintenance costs by 10-15%.
IIoT also offers the additional flexibility to adjust output to demand. For example, new open software approaches are more easily upgradeable. This way, if orders change, operators spend less time reprogramming or reengineering, which means greater machine availability.
The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, rules and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.
The Forum established the Network of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in 2017 to ensure that new emerging technologies will help, not harm, humanity in the future. Based in San Francisco, the network launched centers in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally operated affiliate centers in many countries around the world.
The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks to govern new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), i autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data politics, digital commerce, drones, the Internet of Things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.
Learn more about the pioneering work the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.
Do you want to help us shape the Fourth Industrial Revolution? Contact us to find out how you can become a member or partner.
Finally, carefully configured industrial automation systems reduce errors and variability and thus increase productivity. Automating repetitive tasks such as molding, welding, welding, material handling and packaging allows for consistently high quality products.
2. Industrial automation arms the industrial workforce
Companies that were slow to implement industrial automation tools prior to COVID-19 are now forced to rethink their operations. Blockages and social distancing measures have often prevented workers from physically reaching production sites, warehouses and logistics centers.
This highlighted the importance of tools and technologies that allow personnel to access, monitor, use and repair machinery, control systems and other equipment safely and remotely.
This includes everything from augmented reality glasses and other wearable technologies, to IIoT connectivity, advanced analytics and cloud-based technologies, which improve the way industrial operations are monitored. Supervisors can make data-driven decisions, adjust output more accurately, and improve operational efficiency in real time – all remotely.
Meanwhile, data sharing and digital traceability technologies have greatly improved the ability of companies to gain visibility and transparency to authenticate the origin of parts and products along their value chains. At a time when businesses are increasingly held accountable for the actions of suppliers and partners, this is now an indispensable way to build trust by making operations more resilient to potential supply problems.
3. Industrial automation can reduce the impact of industry on the environment
The third major, and less obvious, benefit of industrial automation is how it can help reduce our impact on the environment.
Energy and carbon-intensive industries need better control of operational indicators and efficiency levers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Digital automation tools can help with this, as shown to great effect in a new generation of industrial plants, which manage production, resources and business processes in an eco-efficient way, supervising assets and operational data across multiple sites and entire value chains.
Powerful dashboard views show thousands of data points to track production in real time, providing insights into asset management, overall equipment effectiveness, and enterprise-wide optimization.
Even notoriously high-emission industries in hard to break down sectors are converging industrial automation with energy management technologies from a central command point to get a better picture of where to save energy and minimize waste.
Because it is essential to develop the right skills for the future
Clearly, none of this can happen without investments in hardware and software, but above all, also in people.
Industrial automation, almost by definition, means that companies require fewer employees and different skills. Many old-fashioned manual jobs are disappearing and are being replaced by more technological, more skilled (and often higher paid) jobs that didn’t even exist just a decade ago.
For some, this is understandably scary. Hence, it is essential that governments ensure that education systems are geared towards promoting the skills needed for the next era of automation.
But the private sector, including companies like Schneider Electric, also has a role to play. Be it mentoring early workers or retraining older employees or helping communities beyond their workforce through training programs.
In other words, we must not only embrace industrial automation, but also ensure that the benefits are well understood and shared with all parts of society.
In this way, no one has to fear automation or start destroying machines like the Luddites 200 years ago.