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The march of the machines in the sector might seem like a threat to employees. Careful planning and creative thinking can turn it into an opportunity for companies and employees alike.

In 1908, Ford introduced the Model T. Each vehicle was manually assembled and dragged down the production line. By 1913, Ford had revolutionised mass production and unveiled the first moving-chassis assembly line. 104 years later, Ford is now able to manufacture cars in “smart” factories laden with reprogrammable robots.

As Industry 4.0 moves us closer to a “smart” factory model, robots and new technology are increasingly reducing the labour required and this will undoubtedly continue as technological capabilities increase. Boards and HR departments across the world are facing internal pressures to save costs by using an automated workforce, but what about their existing staff and their employment rights? These challenges will be all too familiar for the manufacturing sector where automation has paved the way in improving productivity and competitiveness. The Manufacturer reports that two-thirds of UK manufacturing businesses committed to major automation projects over the last two years, however, figures from the Engineering Employer’s Association show that the sector employs 2.6 million people. With futuristic capabilities in technology set to improve, are these people at risk of changes to their employment or redundancy?

The key is to manage expectations and maintain good relations with employees to prevent them from feeling threatened by automation. Most employees will value an honest approach and being clear about what may happen in the future may ease concerns around the introduction of new technology, particularly if employees gain new skills as they learn to use it, engaging employees and (where relevant) trade unions or workforce bodies early in the decision making process may benefit the business and help identify where efficiencies may be made. Optimising an employee’s capabilities in this way helps employees to increase output by highlighting where equipment can be used more effectively. Bear in mind that opportunities to develop new skills should be offered to all relevant employees, and no assumptions should be made about ability or interest in the training because of age, gender or any other protected characteristic.

Your workforce may be uncertain about what the future holds, but new technology will require management to monitor its efficiency and performance; therefore, human intervention will always be needed. You should also consider whether automation truly enhances your business. In some cases, customers may prefer a tailored human touch or the work required may currently be too complex for a machine.

There may be knowledge gaps elsewhere in your business, such as in research and development or strategic planning.

Removing an aspect of work on a production line may enable employees to focus their attention onto other projects, which would boost creativity and generate ideas, in turn increasing efficiency, working conditions and job satisfaction. Figures from Deloitte show that whilst 800,000 lower-skilled jobs have been lost due to technology, it has created nearly 3.5 million higher-skilled jobs, which pay on average £10,000 more per annum and that suggests a positive future ahead for existing employees and apprentices joining the manufacturing industry.

In the short-term, the economy will remain dependent on manpower; however, inevitably, some jobs will change. The focus should be on managing expectations, engaging with employees, justifying any changes and ensuring that any necessary changes are fair and implemented in accordance with contractual provisions.

Published: 16 May 2017

Focus on Manufacturing - Edition 5

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Industry 4.0 Report

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