Will Robots and AI Replace Humans on Manufacturing Floors?

The move towards Industry 4.0 – smart manufacturing propelled by AI technology, IoT, cloud computing and cognitive science - was already gathering momentum before the Coronavirus epidemic hit the world’s economy and its manufacturing sectors.

In the post-coronavirus world, Industry 4.0 is literally a fait accomplice: from policymakers to factory managers there is a global consensus that the future of the industrial sector lies in deploying these new smart technologies in order to traverse future disruptions to both labor supply, customer demand and supply chains.

The future of industry - literally - depends on its ability to augment human workers and supply much-needed dynamism to industrial manufacturing.

In light of what now really does seem like the Fourth Industrial Revolution, old and new concerns are emerging: will this new technology, and particularly robotics, replace workers, rendering humans obsolete to the manufacturing process?

To put it simply: will robots take our jobs?

A simple question deserves a simple answer, and the answer is no. The introduction of robots into manufacturing can not replace the human mind that drives and executes the industrial process. Robots Come to the factory floor to do one thing only: the rigid, monotonous, tedious, and repetitive jobs that do not require the human mind.

The work at the heart of the manufacturing process that creates value, is now and will continue to be human because it requires human creativity and imagination.   

Indeed, AI-based robots optimize the utilization of human labor in the industry by freeing workers to do more humane jobs. It is the simple economic rule of labor and capital: improve capital (through robotics) and labor productivity will also grow.

You can see this role playing out in factories that have already deployed robotic technology: robots are not replacing employees. Instead, they are working side by side as assistive tools, and the result is productivity growth and cost reduction.

The integration of AI technology and robotics in the industry will, in fact, generate new job for humans. You don’t have to go as far as Schumpeter’s law of creative destruction, let us just look at one tire factory that decides to deploy robots for visual quality inspection.

In order to deploy those robots, which save workers the monotonous job of looking for tire defects all day, you first need developers, engineers, managers, sales managers, distributors, and so on, working at the company building the robots. You also need people who will customize the robots for this particular industry, factory, and production line.

At the factory, you need managers and inspectors on the floor to oversee, calibrate, and maintain the work of the robots. And let’s not forget the repair technicians, support reps, trainers, insurance providers – the list goes on.

So back to Schumpeter’s law of creative destruction: for every job lost more are gained, and this could happen even on the same production line.

In this particular tire factory, a worker – let’s call him Mr. Smith – who up till now inspected tires, is now supervising the robots on that same production line.

Mr. Smith is also helping engineers increase the defect detection resolution of this particular robot model, and at the same time is mentoring a new worker brought in to help him oversee the robots in the factory.

Admittedly this is an optimistic scenario, but it conveys the zeitgeist: industrial robots are not coming to get our jobs. They are portents to an important change brought to us by Industry 4.0: more humane jobs for human workers.  

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