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Human Workers are Critical to Industry 4.0

Guest commentary article written by Mary Beth Hudson. Mary Beth is executive director of the Smart Factory Institute, which is operated by Peak Performance Inc. in partnership with the Volkswagen Academy. It is a U.S. institute providing manufacturers with connections, collaborative relationships and certifications for improving manufacturing processes by giving them access to the latest technology in advanced manufacturing. Original article posted on Machine Design.

The evolution of Industry 4.0 automation and its technologies are affecting the manufacturing industry and workforce, dispelling myths of a robotic takeover and preparing manufacturers of all sizes for the changes needed to fully benefit from them.

Pop culture often depicts a future in which jobs—everything from driving to assembly line production to housekeeping—are done by robots in place of humans. But while it might be nice to never have to mop or vacuum your own house, the real-world fear that robots are displacing American workers is misplaced.

Change can be scary, and with the rapid-fire changes going on in advanced manufacturing, many are feeling automation anxiety. Contrary to popular belief, however, neither robots nor computers are stealing our jobs. People with their heart, ingenuity and brain power are at the very core of Industry 4.0’s advanced manufacturing.

The more technology advances, the more conditions are ripe for an expanding human workforce. As the manufacturing industry in North America undergoes its fourth evolution—the so-called Industry 4.0 revolution that began before the global pandemic and accelerated in response to the many societal challenges it posed—we are clearly seeing that incorporating advanced technology into manufacturing does not take jobs away from people.

Instead, Industry 4.0 takes technology to the next level by blurring the lines between the digital and physical worlds with the introduction of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and cognitive computing. We can’t achieve all that without human ingenuity. Moreover, these advances free up humans for other, more rewarding tasks. A recent report from the Smart Factory Institute and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Understanding the Impacts of Industry 4.0 on Manufacturing Organizations & Workers, found that digitalization and technologies associated with Industry 4.0 will not only help in the redesign of manufacturing processes, but will also increase productivity and efficiency for the entities making the transition. Additionally, the greatest projected workforce need will be for human-centered technological skills. Industry 4.0 poses no threat to human jobs and instead provides the workforce with better opportunities.

As anyone working in or familiar with Tennessee’s automotive industry can attest, even after automating the more dangerous repetitive tasks, employment in this sector rose by nearly 17% over the last two decades. Instead of doing away with human jobs, automating mundane processes has freed the human workforce to take on the cognitive tasks that require critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Human capital focused where it can thrive enhances the workforce and even makes processes run less expensively, faster, more efficiently and more sustainably—all goals consumers expect up and down the supply chain, regardless of what they are buying.

If you’re still worried about the future of U.S. manufacturing, just note that the need for skilled workers will increase as we continue to advance technologically. In fact, every person hired in manufacturing results in the hiring of five other workers in tangential capacities. And despite the increasing presence of machines and automation that comes with Industry 4.0, the greatest projected increase in the workforce, an estimated 58%, is for human-centered technological skills such as coding and working with technology.

Although turnover and retention have plagued all sectors of the economy since the start of the pandemic, manufacturing has been affected less than other industries. There is little risk of computers pink-slipping more American manufacturing workers even if overall unemployment rates are erratic. Not when 89% of small manufacturers cannot fill all of their job openings and less than half of the 4.6 million open manufacturing jobs over the next decade are expected to be filled. Manufacturing companies need those jobs to be filled to maximize the potential—human and digital—of Industry 4.0. If anything, more highly trained people are needed, not fewer. Change is not to be feared. Change will improve how we do our jobs. Change will harness analytics to predict when machines need servicing, eliminating costly delays and paving the way for seamless output production. Change means incorporating into elementary school curricula the knowledge and skills that will prime the next generation of workers for high-tech manufacturing careers.Industry 4.0 is not a job killer, it’s a job changer.

The success of Industry 4.0 is only possible with vibrant, well-trained, high performing workers. Here in Tennessee, 2021 was a banner year in terms of securing once-in-a-generation investments from major corporations that will yield tens of thousands more high-skilled jobs in the state, already a leader in the Southeast.

This global commitment to the present and future of technology and human capital is Industry 4.0 in action. It may not be able to mop your floor, but it’s a game changer.


Are you looking for the opportunity to experience and learn of new innovative technologies and accelerate the adoption of technological advancements in both your workplace and workforce?

Join us for a free virtual information session on Friday, March 11th, to see what's happening at the Smart Factory Institute. The Chattanooga Smart Factory Institute is a business-driven effort guided by the Tennessee Manufacturers Association and will enhance the manufacturing climate in the state, making Tennessee a destination of manufacturing, innovation, and collaboration while providing rich learning and training opportunities for the workforce through new manufacturing technology. During this virtual session, you will learn about the benefits of membership, access to workshops, networking, and other related opportunities.

The Smart Factory Institute is available to all manufacturers, large and small, across the country for innovation and workforce training.

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