We all talk as though automation is a new phenomenon, however, it dates back centuries. With every invention, automation has taken a step forward to the role it plays in manufacturing today. Many manufacturers already rely heavily on robotics to complete significant components of their production cycle yet manufacturing is set to be one of the sectors most affected by digitalisation in the next few years. New technologies are continually developed through time, organisations grow and decline, and unemployment figures rise and fall, so what’s new? Today, in the manufacturing sector we face a 20,000 shortfall of graduate engineers every year[i] but there is a fear that the rise of AI and automation in the form of intelligent robots will cause catastrophic job losses. How are AI and its development with automation going to impact manufacturing organisations?
In the digital world that we now live in, every day we hear more about the technological advances that will impact our lives in the future. None more so than Artificial Intelligence (AI) supporting, supplementing, or as some believe, replacing humans in the workforce. It is believed that the impact for the manufacturing sector will be one of the largest alongside consumer-facing sectors[iv]. With AI providing robots with greater degrees of learning ability and sensitivity when it comes to touch, robots will be able to take over more assembly and movement-dependent activities on the manufacturing floor. For example, BMW’s self-driving Smart Transport Robot travels the manufacturing floor sending out communication on any critical situation that it observes[ii]. While the advancements being made in AI are exciting, the consensus within the manufacturing sector appears to be that the effect on its workforce could put millions of people out of work.
Our mission is to remain a leading technology solutions provider to the automotive, aerospace and construction industries, servicing our customers with innovative solutions that solve their project and business objectives – whether it be to design a more aerodynamic car, manufacture a lighter weight aeroplane, or to engineer an electric vehicle. We must stay at the forefront of advancing technologies and provide continual pioneering solutions, training and support to all our customers, therefore, we are required to understand the impact of AI and the advances it has brought to autonomy so that we can best serve our manufacturing and engineering customers.
As business leaders the potential to leverage AI to transform businesses, bringing profound cost reductions and efficiencies while being faced with new opportunities, is exciting. But as managers, employers and members of our society, we have the responsibility that comes with such a transformation, to ensure we drive a positive and beneficial approach to AI. Our role within society means we have a duty to consider the impact on the manufacturing workforce.
When attempting to find a definitive definition for AI, there were many contradictory definitions, this is because AI ever developing, something called the AI Effect. There is one consistent answer for the definition of AI explained best from Infosys: that AI is any activity previously conducted via human intelligence that can now be executed by a computer. AI examples used today include visual perception, speech recognition, machine learning, decision-making and natural language processing. All of these functions previously required a large number of man-hours but are now done in a fraction of the time through AI[vi]. As time moves on, due to human input, computers will develop more processing power and pervasiveness. Therefore, AI will develop a larger set of capabilities.
PwC anticipates that AI will be one of the biggest commercial opportunities in today’s fast-changing economy, increasing the UK’s GDP by 10% by 2030. They also predict that AI will be the biggest driver of that growth, and that AI is driven by consumer demand, which will see a 5% increase on household spending power by 2030[iii]. It begins to look contradictory that there is a concern about job loss due to AI, but that households are going to be better off. How is this going to happen if unemployment increases? Especially at the astronomical rate that both McKinsey and PwC states: unemployment will increase to as many as 800 million people worldwide by 2030, all due to robots in the workplace[iv], with 30% of jobs going in the UK[iii]. 14% of those job losses will come from the manufacturing sector, mainly in the advanced manufacturing countries such as Germany and the USA. In Japan, almost half the population will have to re-skill[iv]. The Manpower Group reported that due to the current technological revolution, jobs have significantly fallen in the largest manufacturing economies by up to 34% and that all employment in manufacturing fell between 1990 and 2014, but output has grown[v].
The possible growth of organisations adopting AI was shown by the study conducted by Infosys, with decision makers from over 1600 companies including manufacturers anticipating a 39% increase in revenue by 2020, this included the manufacturer Bosch, who hopes to earn 1 billion dollars in additional revenue, and save another billion in costs[vi]. During 2016, Bosch employed 389,000 employees; it would, therefore, be interesting to understand where their cost savings will be coming from and the current state of their workforce.
The main concern for organisations according to the Infosys study was that of ethical concern around their workforce, and that this was holding back some organisations from fully adopting AI. While 80% are planning on re-training or re-deploying employees who AI displaces, 37% viewed re-training as the largest, on-going issue that they face relating to AI adoption[vi]. McKinsey also stated that providing job re-training and enabling individuals to learn marketable new skills through their life will become the main challenges[iv].
It is interesting that Infosys note within their study that
“as time moves on, due to human input, computers will develop more processing power of pervasiveness. Therefore AI will develop a large set of capabilities[vi].”
This sparks off two lines of thought: firstly, that humans will still have a role within AI as the development of AI is due to human input, and secondly, it highlights the fear that is evident throughout existing communications that AI will develop a larger set of capabilities. This concern helps you understand where Stephen Hawking was coming from when he was quoted saying,
“I fear that AI may replace humans altogether[vii].”
With the media headlines using phrases such as “jobs taken by robots[ix]”, “to hit low paid the hardest[x]”, “jobs apocalypse[xi]” and “robots could threaten your career[xii]”, it is inevitable that there is a fear amongst the workforce. Instead, we should focus on the re-skilling and re-training aspects, that organisational growth will have a positive impact on the budget for re-training, and that in general, it will help manufacturing become a richer sector. We need to consider that although AI boosting organisational growth is being proven, large value to the economy will come from new products, services and innovations, all enabled by AI. Effective leadership through positive communication and sharing plans with stakeholders will be vital for organisations to succeed with increased revenue and productivity through AI adoption. In a business-transitioning document, Deloitte state the importance of using employee representatives chosen by fellow employees or management to consult the company on workplace matters, to successfully transition a business when adopting new technologies[viii].
It is not inevitable that automation and technology will result in widespread unemployment. Improvements in the methods of production should be encouraged as if properly exploited, advancing technology and automation can improve the standard of living and quality of life for everyone[xiii]. As supported by PwC’s findings. The Industrial Revolution of the 1700’s saw hand production methods replaced by machines and the factory system was born. This transformation only grew production and the manufacturing workforce[iii]. Unite, Britain’s largest union said coping with advances in technology was nothing new for workers in the manufacturing sector, but stressed the Government needs to invest in retraining people as automation increases[xiv].
New technologies require specialist skills and the automation that manufacturers have already adopted still require manpower. Cobots, for example, are collaborative robots that assist a human with complex tasks. These technologies still require humans to program them to teach them how to complete a task. AI could enable humans to focus on parts of their role that add the most value.
Accenture believes that AI can improve capital efficiency, which is a huge factor in industries where it represents a huge sunk cost. For instance, industrial robotics company Fanuc has teamed up with Cisco and other firms to create a platform to reduce factory downtime, estimated at one major automotive manufacturer to cost US$20,000 per minute. Using advanced machine learning, their platform captures inefficiencies within the manufacturing process to improve manufacturing production[xv].
Providing job re-training and enabling individuals to learn marketable new skills through their lifetime will become the main challenge. Midcareer training will become ever more important as the skills mix for a successful career changes. Companies, such as Majenta can take the lead in some areas, including on the job training and providing opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills[iv].
Income support and other forms of transition assistance to help displaced workers’ development continue in employment will be essential. Beyond retraining, a range of policies can help, including unemployment insurance, public assistance in finding work, and portable benefits that follow workers between jobs[iv].
With numerous roles of the manufacturing workforce becoming the roles of smart machines through AI,
“People skills must evolve to meet the mandates of fluid, totally new, even unforeseen roles that machines cannot fulfil,” Jeff Kavanaugh, Senior Partner at Infosys Consulting[xiv].
These findings suggest that it will be imperative for workers to make lifelong learning, re-training and developing skills in to constantly evolve one’s career, the norm. Workers should be encouraged to take charge of their career, make their own decisions to re-skill and take on new challenges, and not remain in the same position for too long.
From the Infosys study, they found that fear of change, lack of in-house skills to implement and manage AI, and a lack of knowledge of where AI can assist being shown by over half of those surveyed, were the issues holding an organisation back when fully committing to AI[vi]. These are issues that can be addressed by increasing communication and awareness around AI within other organisations, for people to learn from. As they found only 37% of decision-makers viewing senior management as resistance[vi], this suggests that it is the workforce that is holding many organisations back.
Evident gaps in research lie in UK specific data, which is vital considering the political and economic impact that Brexit is having on manufacturing. Brexit could be the reason why there is no recent research as lack of support could skew investment figures due to concerns over future trade, not uncertainty over which technologies to invest in. It is important, however, that we understand as a country how AI is being adopted and at what rate, alongside how it is impacting our manufacturing workforce.
Another evident gap is in-depth manufacturing specific research, all the research used in this report included manufacturers, but they were not the sole focus. The manufacturing workforce is unique, so it is vital that we understand the impact on this specific workforce so that we can effectively support them.
Due to AI adoption being an advancing technology there are no relatable manufacturing case studies available yet. Therefore, we cannot fully understand the correlation between AI, organisational growth, cost savings and the impact on the workforce.
It is evident that the main issue around AI adoption is the negative communication that is impacting workforces. Engulfed with scary, negative headlines and figures being pulled from studies by the press, it isn’t surprising that an air of fear has entangled the manufacturing workforce. Companies such as Majenta can help turn this adoption into a positive movement for the sector by promoting a positive message around re-training and re-skilling manufacturers. Factory workers can become design engineers or visualisation test specialists, to name but a few. It was proven by Accenture that AI is the future of growth and that it will add huge value to the economy from new goods, services and innovations[xv]. We simply need to understand how to grow skills and job opportunities alongside.
*All research is secondary research, the thoughts and conclusions pulled from the secondary research are from Rhian Williams, PR Manager at Majenta Solutions, they are her own opinions derived from the research.
[xiii] Technology and the American economy: Report of the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress, US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, February 1966. Cited from http://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/641924