An Outsider’s View of Industry 4.0

We live in a super-charged political environment where outsourcing and job protection are at the forefront of American’s minds. The current discussion goes so far as to suggest robots will replace every possible job currently filled by hard working Americans, with the rest of the jobs sent overseas to foreign companies. Industry 4.0 sounds like a factory-wide software update. The speed and abruptness of change a software update brings is just about as cold and efficient as the idea that our workforce will be suddenly replaced by robots. I believe there is a more realistic scenario unfolding.

I love technology and science fiction. Popular Mechanics was must-read material for a young Huckle. As I grew up, I moved from being fascinated with not just what the technology could do but how it worked. In the military (my last job) I learned to figure out how the technology was going to work for our small, tight knit team. After leaving the military and finishing my first year of business school I started understanding how I could help make technology work for others.

Some background on me…I studied mechanical engineering as an undergrad and served for six years in the Marine Corps. Any veteran in their transition out of the military is struck by how difficult it sometimes seems to translate very unique skills to certain defined job roles. Business school gave me a moment to understand what strengths I could bring to a company and helped build knowledge in areas where I was particularly weak (ACCOUNTING). I want to find a place which focuses on creating new and innovative products which have a meaningful impact on people’s lives. As you can imagine with that broad of a search theme I could turn up a lot of different results.

I became interested in the aerospace industry after linking up with a passionate, smart and creative classmate of mine at the University of Texas. I spent a year learning about airplane production and talking to the small and medium sized manufacturers who would give me a few moments to pass along their experience. We were not surprised to hear that the 10s to 100s of millions of dollars needed to purchase large automated assembly machines were not making it into the budgets of the smaller companies. What we were surprised to learn was that even with recent reduced costs in precise robots which could drill to Federal Aviation Administration standards, wide-spread automation had not really reached most of the smaller companies. We asked the leaders at these companies why they hadn’t set aside the capital to upgrade their systems. The market growth for smart manufacturing looked huge based on reports we had found.

From a report by Nathalie Granato, Smart Manufacturing: Technologies and Global Markets.
It came back to the people.

Most small to medium size factories are very engaged in their local communities. In this relationship the town has fair-salaried, consistent employment with the company and the factory has a loyal, hard-working employee base (among myriad other benefits). The scale of production with which automation can be deployed across these companies is not nearly as significant as the big industry players. Replacing these workers who are an integral part of the company is, not surprisingly, low on the priority list. But once again, there are some impacts and it comes back to the people. Based on discussions with floor managers I learned that the average worker time in heavy drilling jobs is 5–7 years. This is not from quitting or routine attrition (the employees I talked to love the companies they are with). The problem is the massive physical toll these strenuous repetitive tasks have on the worker’s bodies. My classmate and I found that most companies rotate employees from other tasks and quickly try and train them up on the techniques and expectations of the new job. We found that companies investing in a training program, which pull in other workers as mentors, can bring that learning curve to somewhere around 6 months.

This partially hidden monetary impact is very costly to companies.

Human factors are not usually assigned numerical values in the return on investment calculations while considering an automation investment. The more easily measurable impacts of injured workers include healthcare and insurance costs. Less easily evaluated impacts are to employee morale and their engagement at work. Increased defects from inexperienced workers can lead to lost business and disgruntled customers if not caught by Quality Assurance and at best they just create more work for other employees.

I think we can do better and I would love to help out companies interested in improving the work space for their employees. Some level of automation is going to be the key in the near future in continuing to increase our productivity and maintaining a leadership role in the world economy. The McKinsey Global Institute has some great stats (and a graphic below) which goes more in depth here.

Cobots, a robot designed to assist a person, are built and designed to make redundant tasks requiring a high level of precision easier on the worker. Ford’s newest factory in Cologne, Germany embraces this new class of robot, “…co-bots aren’t replacing their human counterparts at this Ford Fiesta plant. Instead, they’re working side by side with 4,000 Ford factory workers, and not for them.” Part-tracking, accuracy and efficiency are usually the selling point for company executives to justify the expenditure. I believe the human costs we can avoid can increase that ROI, while improving employee working conditions.

So…should we be scrambling to figure out a post-work society where the majority of our country’s workforce is replaced by robots? Or should we look into how we can ride the automation wave and protect American jobs from out-sourcing, improve working conditions and increase productivity in our factories?