Machines are increasingly replacing people in production and logistics - and this is nothing new. The possibilities offered today, by networked automatons and autonomous robots, are putting more and more jobs on the list of those under threat. For example, Volkswagen has announced the large-scale replacement of people by robots. This change will naturally benefit the shareholders and management, whose goal is to cut costs, the simple equation being that "people" are paid about €40 an hour, but a robot only costs three to €6 an hour. However, employees also stand to gain from this change if not made redundant - for example, if robots take over arduous tasks that are increasingly difficult to shoulder for an aging workforce. On the other hand, a future in which the human workforce is replaced by machines whenever and wherever possible does seem to point to some kind of apocalypse for human labor .
However, a lot of indicators are pointing to the workplace merely undergoing a shift, with digitalization leading to the disappearance of some jobs but the creation of others. Just as was the case in the Industrial Revolution, some jobs are destined to change profoundly. The trick will be to create new kinds of work from the available opportunities.
Two answers to a changing workplace: qualifications …
A typical scenario in Industry 4.0: Autonomous transport robots take over the work of warehouse operatives – but meanwhile, there is a growing need for highly qualified employees who can install, maintain and service such systems. Jobs that have disappeared in one area give rise to new jobs in another. For these challenging jobs, companies must train their employees in intralogistics – and employees must get on track with a life-long process of learning. And exactly the same is true for production processes.
… and collaboration
New technologies can also help human labor to survive. As man-machine interfaces in production and logistics become more intuitive, the level of qualification needed by their users becomes lower - and current trends in the development of collaborative robots are moving in this direction. Take 'Sawyer' and 'Baxter', for example, two robots from 'US Manufacturers Rethink Robotics' . Baxter, introduced in 2012, and the new Sawyer, are humanoid machines that work alongside human employees on a production line; they were taught their jobs on-line by the employees whom they replaced. "This lowers the barrier for humans - you don't need to be an expert. Anyone who can use a mobile phone can also operate these robots", says Brian Benoit, Product Manager at Rethink Robotics.
Does automation create jobs?
And something else is clear from this example: A large part of the automation involved in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be collaborative, and will not replace people but assist them. Many people feel that jobs will not be threatened by this, and even that new jobs will be created. Even in high-wage countries such as Germany, there are still jobs available in the sectors in which robotics and automation were implemented in the past. One example of this is the automotive industry. In the USA, many jobs were lost in recent decades because companies moved their production abroad - but today they are trying to bring back production again, so as to create new jobs, and to achieve this they are turning to robots and automation. These examples demonstrate that the qualifications of the employees play a decisive role. "One of the biggest requirements at present is to close the qualification gap so that vacancies can be filled", says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) . According to a recent study by his organization, based on figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. robotics industry is growing significantly, and the level of employment is rising at the same time.
Highly qualified: Opening up new fields of knowledge
There is not only a skills gap among low-qualified workers - engineers, too, must learn new skills in areas such as IT, with training in this field still lagging behind. However, when it comes to Germany, the University of Ulm is an exception: Since the winter term of 2015/2016 it has offered, as part of its career-based Masters curricula, studies in "Business Analytics" and "Sensor System Technology" , which deal in detail with Factory 4.0 issues. The aim of "Business Analytics" is to investigate huge volumes of data on business economics and mathematics, using suitable informatics methods. This permits better decision-making in terms of business models, product innovation and operative management. The "Sensor System Technology" course centers upon the key technologies of Industry 4.0: data from the countless sensors employed in the intelligent factory is brought together, processed, and made available to the user.
This kind of know-how allows companies to make use of the new potential for creating added value. Mechanical engineering firms, for example, are developing new digital business models, and now offer their own software analysis tools to help the users of their machines carry out predictive maintenance - yet another way of safeguarding jobs.
Meet the experts at HANNOVER MESSE, and discuss the latest trends in Workforce Development - for instance, at the WoMenPower careers congress whose theme this year is "Workplace 4.0 - career cultures in flux" - on 29 April 2016 from 9:45 a.m. in the Convention Center complex on site at HANNOVER MESSE.