The future of industrial work

In manufacturing, two distinct narratives exist. First, manufacturing is a tough place to be. The work is dirty, boring and dangerous and machines will take over. While the other goes like this: we are in a new era and industrial technologies like robotics, Cloud and Edge devices are doing it the location to be. So the question is which one is closer to the truth and where are we going in the industry?

While there are still dirty, boring, and dangerous jobs out there, most factories clean up pretty well. In the ideal scenario, robots take over, but they do the heavy lifting. According to the global flagship network of the World Economic Forum, which follows these trends, the factories of the future are popping up everywhere. The ideal scenario suggests they will be fully automated, with lights on 24/7. Arguably, our measures of success in such a network should be based on the machines taking over?

Undoubtedly, industrial technologies such as robotics, cloud and edge devices are more exciting than centralized technologies. However, the reality is that the technologies needed to power past industrial labor tied workers to their manufacturing station, a fixed place in the assembly line, as if they were machines themselves. Having a station would seem like a good thing, but wasn’t it also a physically demanding constraint?

Likewise, contemporary technologies make manufacturing the location to be? Well, to the extent that they allow decentralized control over job content, maybe yes. Yet the need for advanced technology skills excludes many who lack such skills. And as a result, workers might not be motivated to train or be able to acquire skills or credentials due to their capacity constraints. Similarly, training is often the last thing on their minds, and it’s not uncommon for some to never know about the opportunities, tools, or educational materials that may exist. Without employer buy-in and approval, training rarely takes place in a structured way. Shouldn’t we stop and ask ourselves why we demand all this endless training? Is this the right approach? There may be something wrong with our technologies if they require so much training to operate or understand.

The way forward for industrial work passes through an intermediate step on the road to progress. It’s called simplicity. Technology could indeed be part of the answer, but not if we don’t design it well. People-centric design means sacrificing functionality if it becomes a distraction from the primary goal of simplification. It would be different if we optimized technology for operators, not for some imaginary, standardized state of factory operations. Ultimately, the future of industrial work is as bright as its operators, no technology can fix it.

Looking at current culture, ideas surrounding the future of work have been getting a lot of attention lately. Pandemic memes have created momentum for remote working, and the advancement of better productivity tools reinforces that. Recently, there have been proclamations of investments into the Metaverse. We could interact in a hybrid working reality through simulations, avatars and holograms – albeit a challenging but exciting proposition. Anyway, most of the discussions seem to be related to improving office work. Why is it a problem?

According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, office work can account for about the same percentage as workers in manufacturing, at around 15% of the workforce. What else, as shown in 2020, including all professionals brings us to 59.8% of the total workforce (ECD 2021.) In addition, office workers and professionals received almost all of the investment. For this reason alone, the manufacturing sector’s share has shrunk in most industrialized countries, now standing at around 11% of the US economy, according to a 2019 Department of Commerce Report. But it is not the number of workers, their productivity or their impact on the economy that should matter most. The number of investments might also not matter as much. Instead, we should start recognizing industrial workers for what they are: knowledge workers.

The experience of being an industrial worker cannot be clarified in official statistical accounts. The impact of changes to come in the near future is even less of a focus. Experts often speak of the industry’s need for change. We approach the workforce as a monolithic entity. We rarely respond to the individual needs of workers. And if we manage to describe processes beyond a technological solution, we deal with the generalities around the working process itself. It is far too easy to prescribe quick fixes to efficiency problems which, if implemented, could harm workers’ interests. In reality, these are not miracle solutions. Plus, if implemented incorrectly, they could actually hurt plant productivity over time. The impact is not always “4.0” or the advancement to something “smart”. Yet we tend to maintain the rhetoric of “progress”. Why is that, and why do we try to take shortcuts when we know it never works?

In my opinion, the manufacturing industry is the place to be. Cyber-physical technologies are exciting. They manage a complex reality far beyond the world of out-of-the-box productivity software and services. Well-designed industrial technologies have simple interfaces that speak to operators and they do not require significant training. Instead, they’re intuitive, beautiful, and empowering. Imagine if Apple products were the norm for the industrial worker, if workers controlled the technology, and not the other way around. Imagine if industrial technology was made for the sole purpose of delighting the worker. What a different world it would be, a world where industry thrived where knowledge was created and value creation happened, where all other sectors looked for inspiration.

Think of how we admired the automobile industry when it was in its infancy in the 1920s. The mass production of quality cars inspired us again with iconic cars such as the Chevy Corvette in the 1950s. and the four-seat Ford Mustang pony car of the 1960s. To some extent, the same fascination happened with the Tesla Roadster in 2006. However, Tesla remained an anomaly. Industry in the broad sense was undoubtedly reluctant to take into account the revolution in production technologies that it foreshadowed. A world where the car becomes a true cyber-physical form factor. An empowering vehicle capable of fulfilling a new function as an essential platform in society, similar to what the smartphone has done since the 1990s. Perhaps it would become even more impactful because it is at the same time a a means of physical transportation. It would then be the perfect counterweight to the memes of the metaverse. If this were the case, there would be great pride in producing such a marvel. Maybe this is the world we could enter in the next decade? Dreaming is allowed.

Maria D. Ervin