Industry 4.0 can help us tackle societal issues, but we need a more human-centric approach, argues Anton Duisterwinkel.
We need to start destroying jobs. This was the message of Mathijs Bouman, economic journalist, in his opening speech at ZIE 2023 in Rotterdam. TNO’s Egbert-Jan Sol said something similar in his farewell speech at the Brainport Industries Campus: we need to drastically increase labor productivity. A fitting message for the biggest Industry 4.0 ambassador in the Netherlands. The demographics are clear: fewer and fewer young people enter the labor market and there are more and more pensioners around. The number of consumers is growing, but the number of workers is declining, causing an accident that’s no longer waiting to happen.
So, the shortage of staff is here to stay. Forget the war for talent, it’s a war for staff. This may become the single largest societal issue in the next decade, as it’s at the heart of the solution to all other societal problems we’re now facing. Indeed, the lack of teachers is already causing issues. Thus, not only the quantity but also the quality of talent entering the labor market is declining.
As with any complex problem, there are no quick fixes or simple single solutions. Talent programs are mostly shifting the issue. Inclusivity, for instance by using Ikea instructions and technical support to allow people of all languages and with little education to join the workforce, is long overdue and helpful. But it’s not enough and not a solution for the shortage of engineers and teachers. Nudging women to work more hours may mostly lead to more burn-outs as they’re not exactly relaxing outside working hours – they do essential but unpaid work. Increasing pension age? Look at France. Allowing asylum seekers to work? Political suicide.
Can technology come to the rescue? Robots? Automation of administrative processes? AI? Oddly, a lot of technology has been introduced in the workplace, which should have had a significant impact on labor productivity. Yet, actual labor productivity has hardly increased. The Dutch numbers are better, but not good enough to prevent a significant shortage of staff. Economists debate the why and how of these changes. Nobody really knows.
One part of the explanation may be that technology has been used to improve the processes while ignoring the capacities and role of the human. Brick-laying robots, for example, replace the easiest jobs for road workers. The heaviest jobs, placing tiles and curbstones, remain manual. This may well lead to an increase in musculoskeletal disorders in road workers. Likewise, information technology offers us all info always anywhere. No rest for office workers. This may well contribute to the increase in burn-outs. Technology can help us a lot, but we need to domesticate it, as TU Delft robot researcher Chris Verhoeven calls it.
The European Union has coined the term “Industry 5.0” to address this issue. Industry 5.0 equals Industry 4.0 but is human-centered, sustainable and resilient. It aims not solely at productivity, but wants to make industry future-proof by ensuring that workers have interesting, healthy jobs. It favors circular production models and efficient use of natural resources. And makes us less sensitive to external shocks by revising value chains and reducing energy consumption.
No more ‘lights-out factories’ but ‘humans-in factories,’ which in fact is a much more achievable target for the high-tech industry. Use of exoskeletons and co-bots rather than heavy robots. Tuning down and simplifying information streams to Ikea level so that they enable rather than confuse workers. Working locally with people in the same time and culture zone. This may all sound a bit like a tree-hugging exercise, but it isn’t. It’s a policy designed to ensure a future for our industry by ensuring a future for its workers and other resources.
I believe that the industry should domesticate the Industry 5.0 policy and start adapting and adopting it in a way that also solves the current issues. Mind you, this still involves robotization, automation, AI and everything else that’s promoted by Industry 4.0 and/or Smart Industry, but with a different mindset.
So, having just said goodbye to the biggest ambassador for Industry 4.0, I hereby apply for the job of biggest ambassador for Industry 5.0!