CTO, Irish Manufacturing Research
With the inexorable rise of AI and automation in workplaces, the future for workers in manufacturing is set to change.
COVID has accelerated both digitalisation and automation in industry, trends that already threatened to transform or eliminate millions of jobs across many sectors. Many commentators contend that COVID has brought forward change by five or more years.
A recurring pattern of history
Some fear that technological revolutions only destroy jobs, however previous research from McKinsey suggests that typically jobs have changed to adapt to the new status quo. Technology advancements saw the percentage of the workforce employed in agriculture drop from over 60% to less than 5% in most developed economies over the last few hundred years, yet more jobs were created elsewhere in industry and services. More recent technological disruptions have accelerated the speed at which jobs are lost or transformed.
Retraining and upskilling
A critical response to this disruption is retraining and upskilling, however even this is shifting. Technology is now developing so fast that standard learning models struggle to keep pace. A traditional post-secondary education or apprenticeship program may be quickly out of date in respect of specific technical content. New models are needed that support delivery and recognition of micro-training, rapidly deployed and quickly applied to real world challenges.
AI and humans share a trait, in that they generally improve performance over time through learning and experience.
Data is key
AI and humans share a trait, in that they generally improve performance over time through learning and experience. In teams and organisations, the collation and sharing of accumulated experiential knowledge and knowhow has often been a challenge that acts as a barrier to productivity.
Technologies are now available that support the enterprise-wide capture and sharing of tacit knowledge in self-organising platforms using intelligent systems. AR and VR technologies are also a key part of the upskilling paradigm, providing accelerated learning of complex tasks and processes, with immediate feedback and progressive learning.
None of this negates the need to develop and nurture fundamentally human skills such as critical thinking, innovation, creativity and teamwork. AI and automation are not infinitely flexible nor adaptable to new tasks. In certain environments and for certain tasks, they are orders of magnitude more efficient and productive than humans, but they are still fundamentally tools that augment the work of humans. A key aspect of future manufacturing will be the design of human machine interactions and interfaces that enable the best of both worlds, to automate certain tasks, but also to provide humans with rich information to make informed, strategic decisions.