“There is no reason and no way that a human mind can keep up with an artificial intelligence machine by 2035,” predicted the techno-futurist philosopher, Gray Scott. Here, Claudia Jarrett, country manager at obsolete parts supplier EU Automation, explains how, through automation, manufacturers can greatly enhance their processes — and address the US’s continued labor skills shortage.
Another keen futurist, Elon Musk, observed that “The pace of progress in artificial intelligence (AI) is incredibly fast. The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five-year timeframe, 10 years at most.” He and Scott’s comments are extreme examples of the old fear that machines will one day conquer humans — and both make their predictions within very short timeframes.
Meanwhile, recent world events have placed a new perspective on the role of automation and robots in industry. They include the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented skilled labor shortage in the US. According to US government data and ThomasNet, 30 percent of manufacturers say they are currently seeking new hires during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, the overall employment rate in manufacturing has declined sharply by 19.1 percent from January to April, 2020. Manufacturers are struggling to hire new people — but what can they do about it?
The recent COVID-19: What it means for industrial manufacturing report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) advised that manufacturers should increase their use of automation to reduce the number of workers on the factory floor.
It seems that companies are doing just that. 50 percent surveyed by Euromonitor International said they plan to reshape their digital strategies, while one-third interviewed in Euromonitor’s Voice of the Industry survey 2020 said they will accelerate investments into automation tools.
At first glance, this scenario might be interpreted as robots one, humans nil. That the effects of COVID-19, combined with the skilled labor shortage, are creating a human-shaped void on the shop floor that robots and machines will soon occupy. That’s one interpretation, for sure, but it’s a rather simple one.
Instead, the ways in which automation will actually change manufacturers’ operations are far more interesting — and also reveal some truths about the skills gap.
Automation has two main effects in relation to workers’ skills. First, while it does tend to reduce the number of employees needed at a given facility, automation can also increase the levels of skill required. In other words, companies must invest in, and train, their staff to get the most from the latest SCADA and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
Second, while automation requires higher levels of skill from some workers, it reduces the levels of skill needed from others. In other words, rather than robots replacing humans, we’re going to see a new paradigm. The automated future will create, as well as reduce, opportunities for employees of varying skill levels.
Meanwhile, the misgivings of Scott and Musk overlook the importance of working culture within any organization — especially manufacturing environments.
Any company needs its staff to thrive at their jobs and drive continuous improvement efforts. Or, as a paper published by Brazil’s renowned Federal University of Technology – Paraná (UTFPR), Human Factor in Smart Industry: A Literature Review, put it: “Human work will be indispensable in smart industries, both for the development of this concept as the management and operationalization of advanced production systems, technologies and processes.”
Although workers in smart environments will have reduced physical efforts, says the report, more efficient AI communications will emphasize the importance of human decision-making “based on sets of criteria, tools and data”. UTFPR concludes that it’s “necessary to ensure adequate conditions of human work, interventions and actions in cognitive, emotional and psychic aspects.”
UTFPR applies its comments “not only to the operator but to technicians, managers and other employees at operational, tactical and strategic levels.” In other words, both high-skilled and lower-skilled workers in the organization. In the case of the latter, more accessible data share through customized reports, and less skill-intensive control through easy-to-use HMIs can provide invaluable tools in getting everyone in an organization on board and directly involved.
So, companies that effectively improve their workers skills are the ones that will get ahead. This is possible through the better use of data, data management and sharing and better reporting — and, therefore, better communication — in the plant.
These data-driven technologies might create the impression that Industry 4.0 requires significant capital investment from businesses. Actually, that does not need to be the case. Instead, the key may lie in applying the latest specialist technologies, like sensors, as part of a low-cost digital retrofitting strategy. This is where an industrial automation parts supplier, like EU Automation, can help.
One thing’s for sure, sourcing the right automation parts will be crucial to creating safer, automated environments — perhaps even go some way to addressing the labor skills gap. Whether or not, to paraphrase Gray Scott, a human mind can keep up with an artificial intelligence machine by 2035, the opportunities for growth and collaboration could prove fascinating.