John Rogers, EMEA VP and GM Partner Network at Faethm, a SaaS enterprise platform that uses AI to forecast the impact of technology, discusses how automation will shape the future of UK manufacturing.
Alarmist headlines lambasting robotics and automation as a threat to jobs and livelihoods have been ringing alarm bells in the UK for some time. However, neither are new to the manufacturing sector, and in some businesses have been present for decades – yet many individuals have retained the same manufacturing job for years.
Anyone working in manufacturing could be forgiven for being a little confused, and this is likely to be accentuated by increasing evidence that the pressure of the pandemic has catalysed even more rapid adoption of such technologies. In addition, it is no secret that manufacturing and associated industries face a severe skills shortage, caused by an ageing workforce (with few young people entering the profession), and the macroeconomic impacts of both Brexit and supply chain issues.
Their combined impact means there is scope for automation to play an even greater role in the near future. Faethm’s AI-powered skills platform constantly tracks the impact of automation and emerging technology on any industry or job role, including manufacturing, and its latest analysis of UK census data indicates that 17.5% of all roles in the manufacturing industry are potentially automatable before 2026, while 7.8% are seen as augmentable by automation and technology.
Rogers explains that it would be foolish to ignore the fact that certain skills – and large portions of existing job roles – will inevitably become redundant due to technological change. But rather than fear such change, it is more important that we embrace it since the future of work is already here. “The better we become at evolving our roles alongside technology, the better we will fare in the evolution of work,” he comments.
“Innovations such as ‘lights out factories’ may be feasible in certain specific scenarios, but there will always be a need for a human touch. Technology cannot capture the entire spectrum of innately human qualities that make us so unique, so every role in the future will see humans and technology work together, hand-in-hand, augmenting one another.”
Rogers adds that making that future a success will require two things; a combination of insights, data and analysis, to unearth the pinch points and opportunities on the horizon; and more importantly, concerted intervention from businesses and government to future-proof the UK’s workforce.
He adds: “Targeted programmes that seek to retain, retrain, and redeploy employees so they complement technology, and vice-versa, will be critical to delivering an equally distributed future of work for all.”
Retain, retrain and redeploy
As new roles begin to emerge it is of course vital that strategic workforce planning equips the existing workforce with the skills needed to fill them. As Rogers explains, a traditional workforce planning strategy simply offsets growth aspirations with how internal talent might be affected by events such as attrition, tenure of service and planned redundancy, in order to understand the supply of talent, and assess the demand for skills, knowledge, and capabilities needed to deliver on the transformation strategies.
“However, the exponential impact of adopting new technologies is now a much weightier factor,” he adds. “HR leaders must consider that the skills we need in the workforce are now changing so fast that the talents they want to employ are currently not available in the market in the volumes required, and at the speed they would like to hire at. Strategic workforce planning must now consider decisions like how to build in-demand skills internally, transforming redundant skill sets and where technology can actually solve skills shortages.”
The next generation
Technological innovation is occurring at pace within manufacturing, but in order to portray the industry as a dynamic and fulfilling one for young people, that fact must be emphasised across the board. However, as Rogers explains, encouraging young people into the industry is only one element of the transformation the manufacturing sector must make to develop a sustainable talent pipeline.
He adds: “Technologies with potential applications in the workplace are constantly emerging and evolving, and as a result, demand for skills will rise and fall far more quickly than ever before; certain job roles will likely come and go within the space of a few years as innovations rapidly move through the initial adoption phase and become mainstream.
“Both employers and individuals also need to recognise that one skill set will no longer sustain an individual for the entirety of their working life. Going forward, adaptability must be viewed as the most valuable skill for every employee. Employees need to embrace the challenges and opportunities that innovation presents and be open-minded when it comes to reskilling – viewing learning as something that will be a constant in their career.”
Hand-in-hand with the adaptability of workers will be a need for employers to shift their mindset. It will no longer be enough to merely leave career development to the discretion of employees. Much of the workforce do not have access to the data on how jobs will evolve with technology like employers do, and as much as employees ought to view their skillset as a constantly evolving toolbox that sits alongside technology, it is vital that employers take responsibility for guiding employees on what skills development they should pursue to achieve sustained employability as the demand for talent continues to evolve.
Rogers adds: “If the manufacturing sector takes the leading role in transitioning employees as requirements and technology trends change, then this will be a huge factor, not only in attracting the next generation, but also in ensuring that no one is left behind A tumultuous two years As mentioned earlier, evidence is pointing to the fact that automation technologies have seen an accelerated take up in recent years, primarily driven by the pandemic. “COVID-19 has acted as a slingshot for companies’ digital transformation,” adds Rogers. “When the pandemic struck, many organisations accelerated the implementation of technology solutions to improve efficiencies, save costs, and simply keep the lights on.”
For many workforces, this transformation included the rapid introduction of new technologies designed to make work more seamless, but which will likely have left some workers with elements of their role now automated by these tools. Rogers points out that HR leaders and teams have a huge role to play in preparing organisations for this automation and augmentation of work.
Tools are now available that can help them identify jobs that are at risk of automation and require reskilling, and act accordingly to avoid costly redundancies and rehiring processes. This includes creating bespoke skill pathways which identify employees’ current skillsets, and automatically recommend training plans to help them retrain in transferable skills, so they can transition to new roles via a ‘job corridor’.
Automation and augmentation
A large swathe of the manufacturing sector could be impacted by automation in the coming years. Considering the introduction of robotics specifically, manufacturing subsectors such as leather and related products (13.4% automatable work), food products (12.4%) and furniture (12%) are most likely to be affected in the next five years. When looking at particular job roles more broadly, bookkeepers, payroll managers and wage clerks lead the way, with 56.8% of work being automatable in the next five years.
On the manufacturing floor, packers, bottlers, canners and fillers are the most highly automatable job group, with 28.7% of the work primed for automation. This implies that the food and drink manufacturing workforce is likely to be particularly impacted by the growth of technology over the next few years. Rogers adds that the technology exists, but cultural and economic factors can accelerate or decelerate the adoption.
Either way, what is certain is that we must prepare. In terms of areas of manufacturing that are most ripe for augmentation by technology to aid the human workforce, IT and software-facing roles are the job profiles most likely to be benefit. Here, 29.3% of work done by IT specialist managers and 18.4% of programmers and software development professionals’ day-to-day work could be augmented, with technologies such as generative design, predictive analysis and solution discovery making inroads into the manufacturing sector. “To be clear, augmentation here is defined as the capability of technologies to supplement a job and create efficiency, therefore enabling a worker to gain capacity to do higher value work,” Rogers continues.
“Our data predicts that six percent of all manufacturing-related roles could be automated within the next year, rising to 18% within five years and 34% within a decade, so the impact could be considerable,” adds Rogers. He explains that technology adoption is dependent on many factors, and some of these technologies might be circumventing talent gaps rather than replacing full time workers.
These new technologies will also require a significant human workforce to support and maintain them. “We foresee a job addition rate of nine percent over that same ten-year period,” he explains. “Organisations require talent that can implement and manage the technologies they’ve deployed, meaning roles in areas like software development, data engineering and application development will continue to be in high demand.”
In addition, roles that are intrinsically ‘human’, that require person-to-person engagement, such as public health, occupational therapists or programme management, are unlikely to be replaced, and in fact will become increasingly valuable. And there are many skills that can be developed to sustain our livelihoods in harmony with technology.
- While the influence of automation on manufacturers is set to continue – with around 34% of current roles likely to be automated in the next ten years – a significant human workforce will still be required to work alongside technology. In fact, we foresee a job addition rate of nine percent over that same ten-year period.
- Manufacturing professionals should see their skillset as a constantly evolving toolbox. Adaptability is the key as they embrace both the challenges and opportunities presented by innovation, and reskilling may be needed to stay relevant.
- For manufacturers, data and analysis will be crucial to identifying opportunities on the horizon as well. as potential threats to the workforce. Use this to inform a targeted strategic workforce plan that retains, retrains and redeploys employees to complement technology in the right way.
- It is important to take a forward-looking approach at potential talent shortages or pinch points. With the war for talent continuing, are you better served reskilling someone from within the organisation instead?
- Technological change is here to stay, so let’s embrace it rather than fear it. The future of work isn’t some distant point in the horizon – it’s already here. The better we get at evolving our roles alongside technology, the better we will fare in the evolution of work.
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