How new manufacturing technology will impact jobs

Posted on 3 Dec 2016 by The Manufacturer

The world is changing but what does this mean for the future of work? Pierfrancesco Manenti, vice president - research, SCM World, explains.

There has been a lot of scaremongering about the future of workers’ jobs and the role manufacturing technology plays in this; the fear of being replaced by a robot has existed for decades and is one that the media loves to play on.

Pierfrancesco Manenti, vice president - research, SCM World.
Pierfrancesco Manenti, vice president – research, SCM World.

The reality, however, is more subtle. Jobs in industry will continue to exist, but the nature of work in manufacturing is changing. To compete in this new world, companies need to know what new jobs are emerging and which skills will be required for the jobs of the future.

Manufacturing technology has changed the game

Automated factories that integrate all aspects of manufacturing operations aren’t new. However, with the digital economy revolutionising every aspect of life and business, factories of the future will be digitally infused, providing tightly interconnected information and production flows.

What is new is the degree of intelligence brought in by collaborative robotics and smart machines that collaborate with each other and make the material flow visible in real-time through intelligent big data analytics.

The internet of things is also changing manufacturing, as it’s free from boundaries and can extend the traditional automation model outside the four walls of a factory, integrating the entire supply chain, and enabling virtual tracking of capital assets, processes and resources.

This kind of transformation means that traditional approaches to manufacturing are no longer enough to drive the necessary productivity and grow profits. Therefore, the success of the industry no longer relies upon the jobs that people are used to – and that they will be looking for.

New technology means new skills

The US Department of Labor reported that 43,600 jobs were added to the warehouse and storage sector over the past 12 months, but these jobs may not be straightforward manual labour for the unskilled.

Business man touching industry 4.0 icon in virtual interface screen showing data of smart factory. Business industry 4.0 concept - image courtesy of Adobe Stock.
More than three-quarters of respondents to the SCM World survey believe that people will be at the centre of the automated factory of the future – image courtesy of Adobe Stock.

More than three-quarters of respondents to the SCM World survey believe that people will be at the centre of the automated factory of the future. It’s still only humans who can provide the degree of flexibility and decision-making capabilities required to deal with the ever-increasing demands from customers.

In the world of digital factories and sophisticated manufacturing technology, employers require a brand new set of skills from its supply chain teams. There’s a clear connection between the development of new automation technologies and the skills gap.

According to our own research, 82% of practitioners that we surveyed believe that continued automation will require plant-floor workers to learn and adapt to new technologies must faster than they do so today. It’s becoming increasingly important for employees to not only be familiar and keep up with rapidly developing digital technologies, but also show leadership and management skills, and demonstrate they can work across different functions such as product engineering, supply chain and marketing.

A new challenge

It will take time for the labour market to adjust to these changes. When it comes to resourcing, our survey also identified that a large number of supply chain executives are concerned about the constraints of the manufacturing labour marketplace. This is not a matter of raw labour input, rather the lack of skilled problem solvers. The supply chain sector needs to start training people to meet this impending shortage.

The new world of manufacturing is changing and it’s true that automation is removing the need for many unskilled, manual jobs. Companies need to focus on the new employment opportunities that are opening up and to start preparing their workforce to be ready for them.

It’s not a question of bringing back old manufacturing jobs – let’s leave robots doing the dull, risky and repetitive jobs; it’s about taking advantage of this new wave of digitisation to bringing (new) manufacturing back home.