Manufacturing’s Technology Driven Ethical Dilemma

@andreeas via Twenty20

Whenever I’ve thought about manufacturing, I’ve always of the assembly line with workers putting together a car or a piece of machinery. I’d say that’s a pretty common imaginary view of manufacturing and how the plant floor operates. Obviously, larger factories would have more production lines. But, that’s a rather old, archaic view of manufacturing. The industry has expanded and transformed due to the associated cost pressures on the margin and the need to manufacture efficiently and effectively. To alleviate some of that pressure, some manufacturers have accepted the Industry 4.0. In doing so, they adopted a more technologically driven approach to production.

Originally presented at a trade fair in Germany in 2011, Industry 4.0 is the idea that automation and robotics with IoT to transform manufacturing into what some call the ‘smart factory.’ The objective is to allow for decentralised decision making while having visibility and cyber-physical systems that monitor the production process. To achieve such an objective, manufacturers need to employ cloud computing, AI, and robots among other helpful technologies. All in all, this approach to manufacturing could be dubbed as the fourth industrial revolution. Sounds rather cool doesn’t it?

According to a McKinsey study, only about 16 percent of manufacturers have an Industry 4.0 strategy in place. That number appears to be relatively low. And it is. Thinking about why that may be the case, the most likely cause is the cost to modify the production process and in doing so add expensive technology. There is a large sunk cost associate with purchasing and this technology not to mention the infrastructure that should be in place to use the technology.

Another likely cause to the lack of adoption is the idea that it’s all or nothing. In other words, manufacturers may view it as they either go all in or they don’t. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way necessarily. In other words, one could adopt to it in pieces as it makes sense and budget allows for it.

Now, it sounds great to adopt to Industry 4.0 and become a technically advanced manufacturer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for technology. The challenge with using that technology is that people lose their jobs. Robots replace them. AI replaces the need for a human coupled with cloud computing and the whole Internet of Things concept.

As robotics and AI as a whole advances, more and more people become redundant and hence out of a job. A robot can do a human’s job much faster, more cost effectively, and for longer periods of time. The question arises, what do we do with those people and who should help them?

Some argue that the advent of robotics and AI will lead to further jobs in the future, e.g. maintaining the robots. That may very well be true. Problem is that such a job would require a certain level of education and there are only so many of that job type that are available. Having said that, people may argue that those made redundant due to robots taking their job at the assembly line can start working as maintenance technicians for robots.

If we assume that some of those people could do it, then great. However, I am not as optimistic. Instead, there is a much great, more urgent need to understand and consider what actions we need to do and who is responsible for those actions.

Governments should intend to look after their citizens many of whom contribute in the form of paying taxes. Having said that, Government should take ownership of this problem of technologically driven job redundancy to harness and tackle the problem. In doing so, the Government could provide some kind of training, job placement and other related services to help people transition to another job.

The manufacturers are often privately held companies with the sole purpose of generating revenues that make the business profitable and yield a return to shareholders if the company is publicly listed. Manufacturers may choose to adopt such technology so they can remain competitive in the future. In doing so, they should accept some responsibility in this. The challenge may come in to convince them that a privately held entity should part in re-assigning employees or otherwise providing them a severance.

Such a responsibility could cause undue burden to the manufacturer who needs to remain as profitable as possible in an already tight environment. This means that we go back to the role of the Government. The Government needs to participate and provide the manufacturer with some kind of subsidy or incentive. Remember, once that robot has the assembly line worker’s knowledge, then there is no incentive for the manufacturer to retain that person unless of course that person could be used some place given their skills or education.

On the hand, assuming that the person has no education, then we arrive a the likely situation where the person is retrenched. If we multiply these retrenchments in the tens of thousands or even millions then we have a global problem. Naturally, we may be quite a long ways away from that given the relatively low adoption rates and the need to create more sophisticated robots.

There is a portion of responsibility that lies on the workers themselves. They should be acutely aware of industry trends. Understandably, they may not have access to the internet or other media forms to obtain this information. However, that can’t be everyone.

Having said that, people need to try to better themselves by learning a creative skill. Creativity is unique and something that robots may not have the opportunity to replicate so easily, at least not for the coming future. That means that we need to provide people the means to learn some new kind of creative skill or trade to help themselves. We also hold a responsibility to help those people upskill or learn a new trade.

Industry 4.0 is upon us. We have to be prepared for the constant, fast paced technological evolution that will drastically change the way manufacturers work. The upside is that we can employ this technology to better production and make it much faster and efficient.

On the downside, people are laid off. People lose their jobs. It raises a rather challenging dilemma of what we should do and who should make that possible. Nevertheless, we need to take it seriously as it will become one of the biggest challenges of our time.

Governments need to take ownership and provide means for those in this situation a means to change their career paths and become productive members of society. After all, it would be much more advantageous for someone to become gainfully employed and pay their taxes than to sponge off any governmental assistance. We have the choice to make whether or not we will help those people as a collective or fight for ourselves and potentially face the same challenge in the future.

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About me: I am a copywriter and storyteller who also manages various projects. I enjoy writing and always looking to improve and collaborate. I am an avid freelancer and looking to become a full time entrepreneur. You can follow me here on Medium or connect with me on LinkedIn.

Writer. Into politics, heritage, environment and crypto/future. Love a tough debate and intellectual discussions.

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