How automation is changing the workforce?

In the future, the factory will be unmanned, where will the workers go?

“Unmanned operation has become a major trend. Nowadays, more and more companies are beginning to try to build “unmanned workshops” and “unmanned factories”. The famous management professor Warren Baynes told a joke: In the factory of the future There is only one person and one dog. The person is to feed the dog, and the dog is to guard the person and prevent him from touching the machine.”

In the factory of the future, is there any “foothold” for workers? When the factory no longer needs workers, where will the workers go?

The new round of technological revolution and industrial transformation continues to deepen, changing our lives in a “moisturizing and silent” way, and making our future full of opportunities and challenges.

“Unmanned” is a term that has appeared frequently in recent years, constantly hitting our eyes and challenging our nerves. “Unmanned supermarket”, “unmanned driving”, “unmanned hotel”, “unmanned restaurant”…

Some people predict that “unmanned” is like a butterfly storm, which will trigger huge changes from lifestyle to work and employment to economic transformation.


Unmanned factories


“Unmanned” is the general trend

The “unmanned factory” is essentially a microcosm of intelligent and high-end industrial manufacturing. At present, the integration of new technologies represented by robots and artificial intelligence with the manufacturing industry is accelerating, which promotes the development of intelligent manufacturing. For traditional manufacturing, ” “Unmanned” will greatly reduce costs and greatly improve efficiency.

An unmanned chemical factory is an automated factory, which refers to a factory where all production activities are controlled by electronic computers, and the production line is equipped with robots without workers. In 1952, the Ford Motor Company of the United States built the world’s first fully automatic factory for engine production. However, truly unmanned chemical factories emerged after the significant development of robots, computers, and electronic technologies. For example, the “unmanned factory” of German Volkswagen has only a few workers in a production workshop.

The disappearance of the demographic dividend and the rising costs of raw materials have made it necessary for China’s manufacturing industry to transform and upgrade to improve quality and efficiency and accelerate the promotion of intelligent manufacturing. Various fields in the industry have begun to improve the level of automated production, vigorously promote intelligent upgrades, have carried out “machine replacement” pilots, and built demonstration production lines, demonstration workshops, and demonstration factories. Foxconn announced last year that it will invest in 1 million intelligent robots in the next three years at the rate of producing 1,000 robots per day. The CNC full-servo manipulator independently developed by Gree was successfully put into use last year, and the total number has reached more than 1,200. Haier’s interconnected factories all adopt unmanned operations in the robot community, which is different from the intelligent production workshop of BMW in Germany and the “unmanned factory” of Tesla in the United States, forming a unique intelligent manufacturing model.

In the grinding workshop of a Dongguan Precision Technology Co., Ltd., 60 robotic hands are grinding the structural parts of the middle frame of mobile phones day and night. One robot arm can replace 6 to 8 workers. In the workshop that originally required 650 workers, now only 60 people are responsible for watching the line and inspection, and the number will be reduced to 20 in the future.

Compared with skilled workers, although the newly launched robots are “newcomers”, the quantity and quality of the products produced far exceed those of skilled workers and experts. The data shows that since the robots started working, the defect rate of products has dropped from more than 25% to less than 5%, and the production capacity has increased from more than 8,000 pieces per person per month to 21,000 pieces. This is just the first step of the company’s “machine replacement” plan, and the number of robots on duty will increase to 1,000 in the next two years. After the “machine replacement” plan is completed, the entire middle and back office operators will not exceed 200 people, and 80% of the processes will be unmanned.

It is foreseeable that shortly, factory production will be like this: all processes are operated by computer-controlled robots, CNC computer processing equipment, unmanned transport vehicles, and automated warehouse equipment, and technicians sit comfortably on the computer. Next to it, the production information of the workshop is monitored in real-time through the central control system. There is no doubt that there will be more and more “unmanned” smart factories, and they will be getting closer to the goal of “unmanned”.


What kind of workers will the factories of the future need?


Is automation bad for workers


A strong adult man can carry 100 kilograms of sacks at worst, and a crane can easily grab dozens of tons of goods. From the perspective of the law of development, the replacement of manpower by machines is an unstoppable trend and a manifestation of the progress of productivity. “Machine substitution” targets the weaknesses and limitations of human beings, or finds some pain points of traditional industries. For example, workers on the assembly line, no matter how dedicated they are, cannot work 24 hours without a break, and no matter how good they are, they cannot keep their working conditions constant, but robots can easily achieve this.

From labour-intensive transformation to intelligent manufacturing, the “unmanned” manufacturing industry is an irreversible trend. At present, “machine substitution” is accelerating, and “unmanned factories” are expanding, which means that many workers’ jobs will be replaced by robots.


This also leads to such a concern: Will the factories of the future still need workers? Will automation cause job loss?


From a logical point of view, this worry is not unreasonable. “Unmanned factories” are inevitable for the development of global manufacturing. In my country, with the advancement of supply-side structural reforms and the transformation and upgrading of the manufacturing industry chain, the quality requirements for workers are also gradually increasing. Machines complete simple and repetitive physical labor, freeing workers to update their knowledge and improve their quality. The industry is undergoing transformation and upgrading, and workers must also be “transformed” and “upgraded”. If not, they may face “no work.” That is to say before it relied on strength, but in the future, it will rely on brains.

Of course, the current ratio of robots to workers in the global manufacturing industry is far from reaching the standard of unmanned chemical factories. This also left us with a rare buffer period.

Before the large-scale application of industrial robots, there will be a stage where workers and robots collaborate in the manufacturing workshop of the factory. The work done by workers is not purely manual labor, but human-computer interaction and the product production process is completed by controlling the machine in the background. This requires employees to have higher professionalism.

When the manufacturing process no longer requires workers to participate, it also requires manual debugging and installation of the production line, automatic programming of robots, and regular maintenance of robotic equipment. In the production operation process, workers do not appear at the manufacturing end, but at the monitoring end, ensuring the operation of the entire production process behind the scenes. To put it simply, if 50 people were needed to operate a production line without robots in the past, only 5 people may be needed for monitoring in the future, and more people will be used to program and maintain the robots. There may be more people in the equipment department than in the workshop. Now, many manufacturing companies are complaining that there is a shortage of people. The most lacking is technical personnel and senior skilled workers such as robot technicians and robot engineers are “difficult to find”.

Therefore, the phenomenon of “reduction” and “increase” in the process of “replacing people with machines” and “unmannedization” reduces the number of general workers who can repeat jobs, and increases the number of new-tech workers who are suitable for specialization. In the future, the demand for general workers who only perform repetitive labor will inevitably decrease, but the demand for professional skilled workers will increase significantly; in addition, due to the improvement in efficiency brought about by the improvement of automation level, enterprises need to expand reproduction, which will increase the demand for new jobs.

There will still be people in “unmanned” factories, but the people needed may be only one-tenth, one-twentieth, or even less than the current ones. Where can those people who have been laid off go? For the same reason, in the future, Every industry will introduce robots, and every industry needs a large number of practitioners related to robot applications, which will be the destination of some people. With a large number of applications of robots, the robot industry will be huge, and corresponding labor will be required from design to production to sales.

“Unmanned factory” does not eliminate workers, but completely liberates workers from physical labor and simple mental work, and plays a more creative and challenging role. For example, technological innovation, strategic planning, production supervision, and coordination to maintain the normal operation of intelligent machines, etc. It can be seen that Industry 4.0, which focuses on smart production and smart factories, will have higher requirements for the quality of workers.

Is automation bad for workers?

No, not exactly.

Ma Yun said something like this: The emergence of railways has taken away many porter jobs, but has added at least 2 million more railway workers. Technological changes will take away some low-end and tedious jobs, and eventually create higher-end humanized jobs.

Looking back at every industrial revolution in history, some jobs will be destroyed and a large number of new jobs will be created. With tractors instead of farmland, farmers can move to cities to work; e-commerce has impacted the economy of physical stores, but it has strengthened the logistics industry and brought a surge in the number of couriers. The “unmanned factory” will lead to changes in the manufacturing industry chain, and will also give birth to new industries, products, and services, and create new jobs.

What the “factory of the future” will look like?

Undoubtedly, the factory of the future must gradually transform from automation to intelligence and realize “unmanned”. What kind of existence will the real “future factory” be?

Let me talk about a concept first. For “The Factory of the Future”, one way of saying this is that it has the characteristics of interconnection, orderliness, and remote self-optimization. Of course, the premise is that various machine tools, tools, and systems can Provide necessary data. Another saying is well-known and very popular, that is, the “Internet of Things” (IoT), that is, all equipment on the factory floor is intelligent, and data is also a necessary “raw material” for manufacturing.

This “future factory” requires equipment to be highly integrated with technologies such as the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and VR. Therefore, it is a systematic, modular, intelligent, and digital super-systematic project. At present, most of them are still in the conceptual and experimental stage, and many manufacturers around the world are working on research and development.

The “factory of the future” is still a long way from us, but the rapid development of new technologies represented by artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data, cloud computing, and a new round of technological revolution in the world are in the ascendant. This tells us that this distance is not too far away.


Source of the article: Sohu — “Future Factory Unmanned, Where Do Workers Go?” 

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