How are we preparing to surf the wave that is Industry 4.0?

Industry 4.0 will turn everything on its head. Machines – the ones we build to help us, not necessarily to fight our wars – will become smarter, quicker, agile and importantly, they will be able to talk to each other all the time, sharing data, decisions, experiences and upgrades. Machines will take our jobs and we need to learn to live with it.

Bruce Martinson
Technical specialist and co-founder of ParaMatic.

Currently process automation, at an industrial level, is a set of instructions; when the tank is full, switch off the pump. In process control, the skill required has been to buy a good tank level switch and to make sure the logic to stop the pump has been well thought out so the tank is never empty, but also never overflows. Before now, we have not thought it would be possible to ask the level switch to chat to its neighbor, plan ahead or to consider the past before making a decision. One day we will.  We will use machine communications to gather information on the plant, make decisions, execute and ultimately, displace the human process controller in the field.

Industry 4.0 is like a massive incoming wave set which has the potential to swamp us if we don’t learn how to surf.

The upset is powered by tectonic movements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning. The simultaneous growth of concurrent technologies from block-chain to drones and smart phones create change at a rate that we cannot grasp. Every industry and trade sector will deploy these systems, much in the same way that we deployed the IBM PC at the onset of workstations in industry. We are only seeing the swells in technology now, and cannot foresee the height or depth of what these swells might amass to.

We will experience a chaotic upset to the old way of life, it won’t be quite fair, but change is certain. Concepts of jobs for life and thirty year careers will become redundant. Safe careers, like airline pilots, will change dramatically. Some careers may disappear and some job descriptions may meld with other disciplines. Reporting from cheaper, faster, networked measuring devices will provide more extensive data sets than that from human controlled systems of the past. Human skill set requirements for support and configuration will be biased towards education with a heavy reliance on numeracy, logic and machine coding. Wherever there is an opportunity to use data and smart interpretation for improved work processes, we will see change.

The change will reach into every imaginable facet of economic activity largely driven by the need to provide new services and products with less people and at lower cost. The effect will move from  workers carrying out repeat tasks with limited logic through to semi-skilled, factory or office bound workers who use analyzable, redactive and logical skills. Truck and forklift drivers are already threatened by the increasing power and use of sensors, control logic and remote management.

For the first time it is foreseeable that the wave could unseat a design engineer, commercial artist, management accountant or a defense attorney; leaving perhaps one person to run the work of five.

Emerging manufacturing, design and IT skill sets from the East are providing competitive stresses inside the current infrastructure. Skills developed and tested in huge markets are hard to compete with. However, there are products and services which we export and sell nationally and internationally. It will be a long time before AI copies and replaces technology; humans will always prevail in recognising needs, developing, designing and refining the solution where. Within South Africa, we need to protect and develop those niches by being early and first movers.

The wave will wash through every echelon of employment, from CEO to factory sweeper. Emerging, smart technologies will create new needs for design, manufacture, support and repair services to support the very systems that will displace us. If we are to surf that wave, we need to grow new skills in logic and data management. We need to analyse and understand the demands of our industries and equip up for those needs. The needs list is comprehensive, but we really need to catch that wave.

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