Industry 4.0 Needs Workforce 4.0

By Anvar Jay Varadaraj*:

The world’s leading trade show for industrial technology, the 2018 Hannover Messe, has just concluded. Most of its display halls were dedicated to Artificial Intelligence (AI), industrial automation and Industry 4.0. The show left us with thoughts on how Artificial Intelligence is poised to change the manufacturing landscape and what can Indian manufacturers do about it. How can these exciting phenomena improve manufacturing practices and deliver better customer service? At the crux of it, how would such sweeping changes affect the fundamental unit of manufacturing, the human capital that is plenty in India?
The first opportunity for Industry 4.0 and AI is in using big data sourced from myriad manufacturing processes to improve processes. How technology converges to make processes more efficient, less prone to errors, and more importantly, enable them to function without human intervention is interesting. At the Messe, Microsoft displayed a software for autonomous material-handling drones to aid Toyota’s manufacturing plants. Buzzing tirelessly, these drones, equipped with cameras, radar and a bevy of sensors, operate more safely and efficiently without human supervision. Big data also help review past data and fine-tune the drones’ efficiency. With such material handling drones, forklifts and operators would now become unnecessary. Further, quality control sensors would even make quality personnel redundant.
On the floors, augmented reality lenses help assembly line workers pick parts better. Application potential of Big data and AI is tremendous, as effective usage and analysis of sensor data can help identify quality concerns. All these innovations may make it seem like they are all built to negate human expertise and reduce manpower. However, to make sense of these algorithms, and guard data from hackers proactively, human expertise is inevitable. This presents a complex picture before us.
The second opportunity for infusing AI and big data is in customer service. At the Messe, Microsoft showcased a fleet management system developed in partnership with a logistics provider that identifies concerns, schedules services better, and cuts downtime costs. IBM displayed how the company helped an elevator company develop a system to monitor elevators constantly, and to report key data such as speed, energy and downtime. All such interventions directly impact customer experience.

The Way Forward

It is human tendency to overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate it in the long-term. Though data- gathering and reporting systems have emerged, their business impacts may vary. In the case of Microsoft-powered drones in the shop floor, it would lower human costs and increase safety. However, the IBM elevator monitoring system may not deliver such tangible impact. While both these technologies can be deployed fast, how they impact the human aspect is yet to be seen, especially in labour-driven markets such as India.
At the base of it all, is the human condition. Any technological development should be sensitive to the experiences and abilities of human operators. Companies should develop strong people strategies to accommodate these technological changes in their short-term and long-term plans. In the short-term, more intelligent partnerships among man, machine and data are expected. This calls for a thorough curriculum change in training our blue-collar workforce, where basics of machine learning and AI should become part of vocational and skill development plans. In the long-run, public and private sectors should partner to identify technology skills demanded by data-centric manufacturing processes, which would revolve around data analysis and security.
Envisioning creative solutions to infuse these skills in a largely technology-agnostic workforce of India would be a mounting challenge. In the white-collar realm, functions such as quality management and data analysis run the risk of redundancy as people skills in the long-run. Machine learning will also predict failures, optimise energy spends, and improve service scheduling better than humans can. Therefore, people employed in these realms should look to reskill themselves in areas such as information and data security, where the human touch would be essential.
AI, Big data and Automation would rattle every step in the manufacturing value chain, faster than ever before. While these changes would bring in economic and quality benefits, there remains the pressing question of how to handle human irrelevance that results from such changes. Only sustained, well-thought out reskilling measures can prepare workers towards creating a Workforce 4.0, that has automation and big data at its heart. Strong grassroots vocational and skilling programmes, as delivered in Germany, would be inevitable to introduce workers to the new ways of working – where cognition and analytical thinking is essential not just desirable.
(*Anvar Jay Varadaraj is Head of Marketing at ELGi)

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