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Preparing for the reality of industry 4.0

What will the road to industry 4.0 look like, and who will pave the way: humans or robots?

Technology continues to transform the world faster than we could ever have anticipated. In addition, the global pandemic dramatically increased the speed at which new technologies were embraced and implemented across multiple industries. For the manufacturing industry, it provided a timely reminder of the importance of being more agile and daring to explore the art of the possible while busting a few myths along the way.

Predicting the future and where all this might lead is much easier than you might think. For example, one of the biggest challenges for manufacturing is the race toward net-zero carbon emissions, supply chain constraints, the digital skills shortage, and keeping up with the pace of technological change. For these reasons alone, we can expect robots on the factory floor to become the norm, along with the proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Welcome to industry 4.0, where interoperability, transparency, automation, and real-time actionable insights unlock fast decision-making that enhances the production are the latest must-haves. Although its technology is getting all the attention, it's human ingenuity that will bring everything to life. Sure, AI, VR, and cognitive computing are increasingly performing more tasks that humans traditionally completed, but human-centered technological skills are the most crucial piece of this complex puzzle.

Human employees ensure processes run less expensively, efficiently, and sustainably while helping manufacturers to unlock unprecedented scalability by expanding their offerings. But the industry has an image problem and an education disconnect that exacerbates the technical skills shortage that is currently slowing down the journey to industry 4.0.

Attracting young talent to manufacturing

The headlines in our newsfeeds around robotic process automation have perpetuated the myth that there isn't a future for young workers to pursue a career in manufacturing. In reality, the problem is the increasing gap between the demand for technically skilled workers and what students are taught in school. Manufacturers require skills around coding and robotics, but there isn't a supply of tech talent coming out of education, with many students not taking a single course in these areas.

The lack of skilled cybersecurity workers and the increase in attacks on the industry is also causing concern. According to a recent report, manufacturing has become the fourth most targeted sector as the high tech in critical infrastructure becomes an attractive target for criminals. The newfound connectivity and embracing of emerging technologies in the sector, combined with its low level of security maturity, has opened up a wide range of vulnerabilities that require a zero-trust and security-first mindset.

Threats around intellectual property, ransomware, data breaches, and attacks on the supply chain are the most obvious examples of frequent attack vectors in the industry. But, once again, we need to talk about the cybersecurity skills gap and the shortage of qualified individuals needed to analyze risks and the threat landscape.

Manufacturing finds itself competing for cyber talent in a world where the demand for cyber security analysts exceeds the supply, and the image problem of the sector makes this even more challenging. Yet, ironically, the costs for further education continue to skyrocket, and they are still graduating without the skills in most demand.

The industry is challenged with removing the outdated ideas of what a manufacturing career entails. The only way to challenge this perception is by speaking directly with students and enabling them to see a current career path and earning potential working with emerging technologies in the manufacturing industry.

Sustainability transformation

One of the biggest drivers of process improvements and the acceleration towards industry 4.0 is the need to take sustainability and decarbonization seriously. Making products with less carbon-intensive inputs and reducing waste across every aspect of manufacturing has become a huge talking point with Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) risks entering the spotlight.

IoT sensors and various software tools can capture carbon and sustainability data across an entire factory to reimagine its manufacturing processes. Ultimately, it will be a combination of human ingenuity, technology, data, and green principles that will be required to help manufacturers prepare for the arrival of industry 4.0. But bringing all of these pieces together will be the biggest challenge.

From a technological standpoint alone, eliminating data silos and achieving end-to-end automation in a business can only be achieved by integrating many different technologies such as AI, RPA, and IOT in unison. Elsewhere, application programming interfaces (APIs) will enable applications to communicate with each other. But the dream of hyper-automation in manufacturing also requires the right people in place with a unique set of skills that are hard to find.

Advances in technology are helping leaders define what the smart factory of the future will look like and explore the art of the possible. It has the potential to be efficient, aware, flexible, agile, and resilient by increasing collaboration between all parties, from internally to vendors and even consumers.

However, despite the shiny new technology getting all the attention, the road to industry 4.0 is more about manufacturers preparing their people and processes for the inevitable changes ahead as the world of manufacturing enters unchartered territory. However, contrary to what you might have read in a clickbait headline, the success of Industry 4.0 will be shaped and determined by a well-trained and high-performing human workforce. For these reasons alone, I predict that machines and human employees look set to complement rather than compete with each other as industry 4.0 evolves beyond its industry buzzword.

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