Erica Spinoni
Erica Spinoni (Research Analyst, European Customer Insights & Analysis)

Artificial intelligence (AI) is spreading around the world, and not only as a buzzword and conversation starter. AI is now a real technology — not only on the shop floor, but in everyday life.

Many people are using the term AI, but there are still concerns about the concept. What exactly is AI, and how will it change our working lives? Simply put, AI is a technology that can understand external conditions and automatically react to those situations. But it is more than that — it can learn from past events and adjust responses to new challenges while continuously improving its embedded knowledge. For this reason, we believe that AI, which has fascinated humankind for generations (the first film about AI and robotics dates back to 1927), can improve workers’ experience in manufacturing plants. AI-embedded co-bots, for example — robots that can work shoulder-to-shoulder with factory workers — enable workers to perform tasks in a safer environment.

Lack of Trust and Human Substitution Fuel Fears

Ask workers what they think about AI, and the general response will be one of distrust. This is mainly for two reasons:

  • AI, and co-bots, are not seen to be ethical. Workers can struggle to accept the technologies, believing that because AI does not have a human conscience and can therefore not follow rules, policies and standards, it cannot be trusted.
  • Workers fear they will be substituted by AI and that humans will no longer have a role on the assembly line.

The reasons seem rational at first. On reflection, however, they may be unfounded, as AI is already bringing benefits.

First, we are seeing a reduction in the complexity of machine-machine and human-machine interactions due to continuous improvements in machine language and learning. These improvements will further increase manufacturers’ productivity and play a key role in the mission to create a more enhanced customer experience. In addition, we predict shorter production cycles as a direct result of simultaneous tasks being performed by a single co-bot.

Second, AI-embedded robots and co-bots can learn quickly and interact with human workers and vice-versa. Co-bots in fact have become so advanced they can now sense a human’s presence — a hand, for instance, or a leg — and if they are carrying out a dangerous task, they can immediately stop and allow human intervention.

This should have a positive impact on people’s perceptions of AI, especially if the benefits on the shop floor (on operational cost and order-to-delivery time reductions, quality, customer service improvements, for example) outweigh the potential consequences, such as job losses and the effort needed to re- or up-skill workers to prepare them for new or changing roles.

For the Most Part, Jobs Will Not Go Away — They Will Evolve

The most common fear among shop floor workers is that they will lose their jobs to robots and co-bots. This, however, is unlikely to happen as such, as humans will always need to be part of the loop. Instead what will happen — and is already happening — is a change in the types of job roles taken by humans and machines. Machines — including robots, co-bots, bots, and autonomous intelligent vehicles (AIVs) — are increasingly taking over high-intensity physical tasks, freeing workers not only from labour-intensive tasks but also sparing them from injuries and physical damage caused by a lack of attention, long-term impact, and potentially the lack of the right physical skills to begin with. Workers who previously carried out these kinds of tasks on the assembly line are now performing different tasks — such as supervising the machines. So, what we are seeing is job modification rather than job substitution. In addition, those factory workers who are still on the assembly lines are now being augmented by the use of AI and co-bots, sometimes in combination with other technologies such as AR and VR — enabling workers to operate in a paperless and hands-free factory environment.

A real-life example is the re-establishment of an Adidas production facility in Germany, the so-called “Speedfactory”. With the introduction of new technologies, mainly 3D printing, Adidas reopened the factory in Ansbach and created new positions and boosted employment rates in the town.

Learning, Teaching and Universities: Knowledge Required to Overcome Digitalisation Anxiety

The best way to overcome the fear of AI and co-bots is by building a competent and skilled labour force. Manufacturers will need to invest both time and money in the up-skilling and re-skilling of current staff. This will allow workers to actively collaborate with intelligent machines in a safer environment and with a reduction in physical effort. To build an Industry 4.0 culture, manufacturing companies should also consider deploying AI ambassadors or change agents across the organisation — and on the shop floor in particular. Universities will also play a critical role in developing AI skills and preparing students for this new generation of work. This will work best when done in collaboration with employers to offer students direct industry experience during their studies.