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Industry 4.0 is Coming to the Factory, and Here’s What Workers Think

The intelligent factory of the future could be just around the corner, but today’s manufacturing employees remain uncertain about how advanced technology will help their jobs.

In a new report, “Industry 4.0 Demands the Co-Evolution of Workers and Manufacturing Operations,” Intel asked 145 factory stakeholders from the production floor to the boardroom about their expectations for tomorrow’s smart factories and discovered that the way forward must focus equally on the tech—and the talent, the humans inside these facilities whose skills must evolve along with machines and systems growing smarter and better connected by the day.

Because manufacturing facilities today have achieved disparate levels of digital capability, each journey toward the smart factory of tomorrow looks different, the report said. More advanced factories may need to better integrate the systems in place today, which plants that still rely on manual processes have much to accomplish in terms of automation and connectivity. In fact, one quarter of those responding to Intel’s survey said they work in an environment in which the “operator has to do the majority of the work.” Slightly more, 29 percent, are employed in factories where automation is the norm.

As technology plays a larger role in the manufacturing plant, Intel sees job roles—and titles—evolving. The IT professional of today, responsible for keeping enterprise systems running, could be what Intel describes as the “DevOps Doer” of tomorrow who’s hands-on with technology and tasked with transforming how things get done. Or the future “factory pit boss” who’ll oversee a production floor filled with automated machines likely will absorb multiple existing jobs such as “hands-on worker,” “hands-on risk spotter” and “factory supervisor.” As automation becomes critical to production, human laborers will be freed up to take on more high-value takes and think proactively about risks and exceptions rather than dealing with mundane, repetitive tasks.

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In fact, many of the pain points mentioned by the surveyed factory employees could be addressed by coming Industry Internet of Things (IIoT) technologies. The top challenge cited by 26 percent centers around information—either than necessary data isn’t collected, different to use (because of wrong formatting, for example) or isn’t reliable for some reason. Equipment maintenance and repair were top of mind for 24 percent who pointed to costly unplanned downtime, reactive vs. proactive management and trouble diagnosing problems are key issues. Seventeen percent are concerned that their current equipment isn’t sufficient for the technological advancements to come due to its age or because it’s not being used for the purpose for which it was designed.

What’s interesting is that nearly all participants in the survey said they have a voice in important decision-making. Ninety-eight percent believe they influence directly or indirectly any decisions involving new technology purchases or deployment. Factory management not currently engaging those on the production floor when evaluating major tech projects should consider doing so.

Intel’s report uncovered survey participants’ persistent distrust of Industry 4.0 advancements such as automation and greater reliance on data. “Even those who are closest to and seemingly most ready for 4.0 seem afraid of letting go of human control in manufacturing processes,” the report said. “They saw the dark potential of these technologies becoming difficult to control, from losing control over quality or data, to losing the ability to respond flexibly to volume fluctuations, to losing control of personal information, or even fully losing control over the factory itself.”

However, survey takers responded positively to the outcomes that could be achieve through Industry 4.0, such as improved transparency in their work and in enterprise communication and being freed from “hard” labor to focus on more high-value, human-centric tasks.