The computerisation of manufacturing, or what is commonly referred to as Industry 4.0, is changing the way we work in the 21st century as smart technologies become increasingly integral to factory processes and supply chain automation.
A phrase first coined in 2011, Industry 4.0 follows the first three industrial revolutions of mechanisation, mass production and automation. However, with Chancellor George Osborne expected to announce a trial of driverless lorries in this month’s budget, some have called for the government to investigate the impact of robots and automation on the UK’s workforce.
With reports suggesting that the use of robots (in applications such as automotive manufacture) could increase the vulnerability of UK jobs, Labour’s Tom Watson has called for a new industrial strategy to ensure that the benefits of emerging technology are properly realised and shared equally. Speaking to the Guardian Watson stressed that there is currently no minister for automation, no special cabinet committee to come up with solutions and no royal commission to look at the economic impact robots will have or the ethical dilemmas they pose.
Consultancy firm Deloitte has claimed that automation, though a net benefit to the UK economy, has removed 800,000 jobs since 2001, and that up to 11 million UK jobs have a high chance of being automated within the next decade. A robot driving a lorry may sound daunting today, but in 1890 the thought of a horseless carriage would have sounded equally fanciful.
Today, sensors and actuators, together with advances in computation, memory and communication capability, are making every product smarter. The results will be positive for the vast mass of the global population, bringing knowledge, connections and consumer choice to billions. However, Watson’s concern is that these advances will present challenges for the millions in jobs that won’t exist in a decade and the government just isn’t equipped to help address them.
Watson stressed that where the industrial revolution of the 19th Century primarily impacted on working class jobs performed by hand, the age of the robot will impact a much wider demographic, with automated systems now capable of diagnosing diseases, writing annual reports, researching criminal cases in court, designing software and pouring our coffee. Some experts predict that it will be jobs in medicine, law, accountancy and engineering that will bear the initial impact of the rise of the machines. Why will we need a GP, when a robot can read our complex physiologies and prescribe, manufacture and distribute the exact blends of medications we need?
However, conversely, in 2013 a study by The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) - ‘Positive Impact of Industrial Robots on Employment’, claimed that more than two million jobs will be created by robots by the year 2021. “Our study proves that robots create jobs,” said Gudrun Litzenberger, General Secretary of IFR. “It is a matter of fact that productivity and competiveness are indispensable for a manufacturing enterprise to be successful on the global market. Robotics and automation are the solution. Certain jobs may be reduced by robotics and automation but the study highlights that consequently many more jobs are created.”
The report states that robotics will be a major driver for global job creation moving forward and the IFR has also stressed that one million industrial robots currently in operation have been directly responsible for the creation of close to three million jobs, and that robots will help to create jobs in some of the most critical industries of the 21st century - consumer electronics, food, solar and wind power, and advanced battery manufacturing.
Findings of the report highlighted that manufacturing employment has increased in nearly every major industrialised country, even as the use of robotics increased sharply, stating: “In world terms three to five million jobs would not exist if automation and robotics had not been developed to enable cost effective production of millions of electronic products, from Phones to Playstations.” And this trend is also now being seen in emerging countries such as China and Brazil.
The IFR’s report can be viewed here
Regardless of the impact of robotics one thing is for certain – in the future the number of industries and processes employing robotics will undoubtedly rise in line with the increase in miniaturisation and new sensing capabilities – so for better or worse they are here to stay.