How is automation changing the workplace

Digitization and automation are changing the world of work

Are robots robbing their flesh and blood colleagues' livelihoods?

Even before and during the previous industrial revolutions, dystopias of complete loss of work were drawn - just think of the machine-wreckers in nineteenth-century England. Technological progress has always given rise to new fields of employment. This can also be proven by statistics: There is a very high employment rate, especially in high-tech and highly automated countries such as Germany, the USA and Japan. Only exemplary case studies show what consequences the use of robots will have in German industry

How soon can we expect radical change?

In business research, we can estimate the effects of digitization and Industry 4.0 in the next 5-10 years. Statements over a longer period of time are speculation. Today we are still a long way from automatic production as well as data transmission and evaluation replacing humans as the link between the individual stages of the value chain. Despite the further development of artificial intelligence and self-learning systems, the economic use of a robot is still limited to a narrowly defined range of tasks. A reallocation is associated with great effort, which limits the economic use of automation. In the short and medium term, the substitution of jobs by robots will primarily affect industries with extremely high quantities and a low number of variants. In Germany, such products are usually already characterized by highly automated production.

Which positive effects can be expected? When will robots replace humans?

The domain knowledge, i.e. the experience of the employees, is underestimated. In indirect, but also in direct areas, a robot will never be able to completely replace the accumulated experience with creativity and problem-solving skills of a qualified employee. Additional staff is even required for the development, manufacture and sale of innovative products. This will certainly also require new qualifications. The increasing academization meets the requirements of Industry 4.0 for well-trained specialists, but industrial vocational training must also be revolutionized.

Where does automation create new jobs?

Many studies do not consider which completely new business fields and models are opened up by Industry 4.0. This does not only apply to companies and industries that participate directly in Industry 4.0, for example in the field of sensor technology, system technology or software development. But also companies whose business is only made possible by Industry 4.0, for example in information processing using cloud computing or through distributed manufacturing approaches also in the context of 3D printing.

What role does the robot play as a “mechanical colleague” on the assembly line?

The opportunities for older and restricted employees relate in particular to the issue of ergonomics, for example through new acoustic and optical systems that make order picking easier, for example. Collaborative robots that work directly with employees without an enclosure can take on specific tasks in places where there are still unergonomic workplaces with heavy loads and overhead work. The employees then take on demanding positioning tasks and cover special and malfunctions. These tasks will still be carried out by people in the medium term.

What influence does digitization have on the low-wage sector?

Digitization also offers new opportunities for the low-wage sector. One example is the topic of crowdsourcing, in which internal subtasks, such as research activities, are outsourced in small packages. With locally low wage costs, both the client and the contractor benefit. Of course, automation particularly affects regions that were previously characterized by manual workplaces. In May 2016, it was reported that assembly service provider Foxconn was replacing 60,000 of 110,000 employees with robots in one of its Chinese factories. But not only have wages increased in China. The level of education has also improved drastically in large parts of the population. This means that there, too, the proportion of unskilled industrial workers is decreasing. In addition, China is already much better positioned when it comes to automation than, for example, some of the Southeast Asian countries, in particular through investments in Western companies and know-how carriers. One example is the much-discussed participation in the robot manufacturer KUKA.

What answer do you as TCW have to these challenges?

As TCW, we have recently accompanied a large number of companies on the path to Industry 4.0. The silver bullet does not exist. This was as true for the introduction of lean production systems many years ago as it is today. Every company has to undergo an analysis process in order to weigh opportunities and risks and choose the right strategy. The current degree of maturity of the company must be taken into account as well as the general conditions of the business area. The field of possible technology options is also enormous. Small companies in particular quickly lose track of things here. Here, however, TCW can provide support through its broad industry and technology expertise. An investment in 3D printing machines, collaborative robots or the introduction of SMART modules certainly does not make sense for every company at the given time. We sometimes have to make these recommendations too. But we can also tell our customers where the potential lies. As TCW, we have been able to develop the necessary analysis concepts on the basis of many practical cases in recent years, which enable us to recommend the components of Industry 4.0 to the customer, which really add value in his specific situation. With a technology radar and experience from over 25 years of production optimization, we then work with our customers to develop a strategy and implementation roadmap, including packages of measures and implementation support. We have already been able to support a number of companies in taking the hurdles to the next industrial revolution - and without stumbling.


Practical examples