People in the Future Factory

Baxter and person

People will have a role even as more tasks are automated,    but the jobs may be different and require special skills.
Photo courtesy Rethink Robotics, Inc.

I see people in factories in the future, but doing some very different jobs. There is so much debate right now about how many jobs robots will take over, and how many more jobs will be eliminated with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Smart Manufacturing, Industry 4.0, or whatever your vision of a more automated and flexible factory of the future might be. I believe all of that will shift people’s roles radically.

Sure, some people’s jobs will be automated. That is nothing new. What is new is the level of capability in the automation, the degree to which it will become mission-critical, and the sheer volume of data that all of this automation will generate. So that leads me to think there will be some new IT, data analyst, automation engineer, continuous improvement and strategy or vision-setting jobs in factory settings.

Traditional big data approaches that work in office applications won’t necessarily work in mission-critical production plants functions. We will need specialists. Some of the folks who have come up through the factory operation may be the right people for those positions. I know many of these folks, who understand the operation and the information needed to run it effectively.

People will be needed to maintain and ensure that the intelligence built into the equipment, and possibly also into the containers, the materials and the products themselves, keeps working. This is quite a different type of maintenance technician than we’ve had fixing mechanical equipment, and those folks will also be needed still.

The continuous improvement (CI) specialists will continue to play a critical role as well. While I can see the robots and intelligent equipment taking over the role steady-state operations, the improvement will need to come from people. CI has gained an ever more prominent role as lean and six sigma has become a way of doing business.

I believe that these CI folks will need to include some real visionaries too. People who envision the future not just as incrementally better than how it is today, but who can see completely new ways of delivering value. Maybe these folks work together with some strategy teams in the offices….

Can you see that the skills shortage is only likely to get more intense? There are not many jobs like this today, and probably fewer people who are really skilled at robot programming, continuous improvement, and breakthrough industrial thinking.

Yes, automation will be taking over some lower-skilled jobs. And it will bring a raft of jobs that need special skills and expertise.

From what I can see, the gamers will have a ball doing some of these jobs – reacting quickly, foreseeing what might happen, assembling and motivating teams, and envisioning brave new worlds. I hope some of those folks got their interest sparked at Manufacturing Day earlier this month!

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