Will technology eventually make human workers redundant?

Posted on 2 Jan 2020 by The Manufacturer

Rather than making human jobs obsolete, advanced digital technologies have the potential to maintain, vastly improve and augment human skills, opening up new opportunities for businesses. Nowhere is this truer than here in the UK.

When people think of industrial automation, images of production lines with robots whizzing and whirring away, with one or two operators overseeing, are usually conjured up.

While this is certainly a portion of modern manufacturing, it’s the reality much more in German manufacturing than in the UK.

Robotics Automation Factory Automotive Production Line Robots - Stock Image

The real heart of German industry lies in automotive and white goods – manufacturing sectors that are very high output and therefore benefit from machines that can do repetitive, low skill tasks repeatedly.

While the UK manufactures cars and white goods also, the output is nothing like on the same scale. In 2018, the UK manufactured a total of 1,604,328 vehicles, while a total of 5,120,409 vehicles rolled off German production lines – over three times as many.

Where the UK’s real strength lies is in areas that involve low volume and/or manual skill, such as construction, food and drink, aerospace and defence.

These are all areas where a human can do the job much better than a machine could, whether that’s through complicated processes or specialist dexterity, and are a real credit to the deep domain knowledge and skill that UK manufacturing has built up over generations.

Manufacturing as an expertise, rather than a sector

One of the UK’s most significant manufacturing sectors is aerospace, with demand growing by around 5% year-on-year.

This is a sector that relies very heavily on specialist knowledge and manual processes and is supported by a workforce that has deeply embedded knowledge and capability. This is a real asset to the UK, and a true point of envy to other major industrial nations.

Stock UK Aerospace Clouds Aeroplane Aviation

Yet the UK’s prowess in aerospace (an industry that we as a nation created) and high value manufacturing is under threat, as we are slowly headed towards a manufacturing skills crisis.

The manufacturing workforce is an ageing one – ECITB data predicts that 91,000 engineers and 29,000 engineering technicians are expected to have either retired or be close to retiring by 2026 – just under a fifth of the entire engineering workforce, taking with it a huge amount of specialist domain knowledge.

One of the key concerns for the high value manufacturing sector and especially for aerospace, which is a profitable and growing sector, is establishing how these skills can be effectively passed down and maintained.

Technology: the key to maintaining the UK’s coveted manufacturing skills and improving human potential

There is huge potential for advanced digital technologies to act as a buffer to prevent specialist skills leaving organisations as their human holders retire.

Virtual and augmented reality, computer vision and artificial intelligence (AI) are all technologies that can be immensely powerful training tools which are already helping to teach and apply specialist domain knowledge to new talent.

Connected Worker - Industrial 4.0 , Augmented reality concept. Hand holding tablet with AR service , maintenance application and calling technician for check destroy part of smart machine in smart factory background - STOCK IMAGE

Take augmented reality (AR) as an example. A retiring worker could programme in specific instructions related to an advanced manufacturing task into an AR headset.

The new worker could then carry out the task while the AR headset provides one to one guidance and instruction that is virtually overlaid as the worker undertakes the task.

Data capture and AI within the headset could then provide live analysis and quality control to ensure that the task has been done to a sufficient standard. And, we’re already seeing how future network technologies such as 5G and IoT are enabling innovative tech like AR to be used in industrial environments.

Specialist human skill at the core of UK manufacturing, realised by technology

Technology allows for 30 years of manufacturing knowledge to be easily handed down, with the new worker being effectively upskilled and receiving personal training and guidance as if directly from a manufacturing veteran.

UK manufacturing’s biggest opportunity lies in using technology to make sure that this domain knowledge and expert skills is kept alive.

Nick Wright, Head of Manufacturing Industries, Digital Catapult