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Bridging the gap with Automated Engineering

24/04/18 Ricky Wilcocks Manager, R&D and Engineering

AI, robotics and other forms of smart automation have the potential to bring great economic benefits, contributing up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030 according to PwC’s analysis. This extra wealth will also generate the demand for many automation and process control jobs, but there are also concerns that it could displace low skilled roles as well as some existing engineering jobs.

PWC identified three waves of automation that might unfold over the next 20 years:

  • Wave 1 (to early 2020s): algorithmic
  • Wave 2 (to late 2020s): augmentation
  • Wave 3 (to mid-2030s): autonomy

Ricky Wilcocks, Manager of R&D and Engineering at Redline Group discusses further: “Britain’s engineering skills shortage alongside automated engineering and manufacturing is continuing to put pressure on the engineering job sector. According to the state of engineering survey by Engineering UK, the industry requires 265,000 new skilled entrants annually in order to meet staffing demands by 2024. While the UK’s engineering sector is thriving economically, it continues to experience the challenge of attracting the right engineering talent which is affected by the rising concerns about its long-term sustainability.”

“The next automation wave is sending potential shockwaves in the UK’s job market. The main concern is that it is evident that young people's awareness about engineering almost always has similar results, stereotyping engineering as an ‘oily rag' profession plagued with repetitive and menial tasks. For those of us within the technical and engineering recruitment sector, we know this isn’t true,” says Ricky “especially with the Industry 4.0 on the horizon”. Industry 4.0 is commonly referred to as the fourth industrial revolution.

Ricky continues: “Rising demand offsets job displacement driven by automation. From 2005–2015, jobs created by rising domestic demand more than compensated for job losses to technological and manufacturing advances. New technologies give rise to new occupations and industries. New types of jobs have emerged to handle new technologies.

Fortunately, workers have not been fully replaced by automated systems. Trained and well-educated employees are as important as they have ever been to the engineering, technology and manufacturing industry, even as their roles and environments change. Individuals do need to find new ways to add value, and continually develop expertise that cannot be relegated to machines.

Over the past few years, fears of technology-driven job losses have re-emerged with advances in ‘smart automation' – the combination of AI, robotics and other digital technologies that are already producing innovations like driverless cars and trucks, intelligent virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Cortana.

Employers need to help their employees develop new skills and qualifications, but many don’t know how to further train personnel without disrupting the manufacturing process or taking people away from their posts. If manufacturers cannot identify solutions, the skills gap that threatens the current industry is likely to persist into the future.

There are arguments that suggest increasing automation will reduce the need for human workers entirely. However, as Engineering UK’s study suggests, that is not the case. Instead, employers in the engineering sector anticipate an increasing need for people with higher level skills and qualifications — those that hold qualities that can’t be replicated by automation. 

New technologies in areas like AI and robotics will both create some totally new automation jobs in the digital technology area and, through productivity gains, generate additional wealth and spending that will support additional jobs of existing kinds, primarily in services sectors that are less easy to automate.

There is a case for some form of government intervention to ensure that the potential gains from industrial automation and Industry 4.0 are shared more widely across society through policies in areas such as education, vocational training, and job matching. 

Currently, Industrial automation is the use of control systems, such as computers or robots, and information technologies for handling different processes and machinery in an industry to replace a human being. It is the second step beyond mechanisation in the scope of industrialisation.

Industry 4.0 should create what has been called a "smart factory". Within the modular structured smart factories, cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralised decisions. Over the Internet of Things, cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans in real time, and via cloud computing, both internal and cross-organisational services are offered and used by participants of the value chain. Some examples for Industry 4.0 are machines which can predict failures and trigger maintenance processes autonomously or self-organised logistics which react to unexpected changes in production.

For employers, re-qualification is an important mechanism to aid the transition from more to less automatable jobs. Put simply, the misconception that technical and engineering jobs are boring, repetitive and uncreative will not be present for much longer. But first, the industry needs to highlight the advantages of industrial automation and control — it won’t replace jobs, it will just make them more interesting. The coming wave of automation may not be as destructive as we have previously feared, but that does not mean we can afford to be complacent.

From a skills perspective, the UK already has a chronic shortage of engineers and this is acutely felt within the robotics and industrial automation and control industry. Capacity needs to be built at all levels from specific apprenticeships in robotics, graduate and doctoral courses and into professional development and upskilling of existing engineers into ‘robotics engineers'. Creating these skills will allow the UK to integrate and create the next generation of robotic systems and technologies. It's likely that these technologies will enhance human-robotic interaction potential, provide robotic systems with greater flexibility and in some instances allow for artificial intelligence algorithms to perceive changes in the robot's working environment and act accordingly. In other words, allowing robots to ‘sense and think' rather than just 'do'.”

Redline specialises in Process Control & Automation jobs and provides clients with a unique level of expertise in permanent, contract and interim recruitment. For over 35 years, we have provided knowledge-led solutions across the process control, automation and instrumentation recruitment sector. Our approach has allowed us to develop long-established relationships with many market-leading systems vendors, OEM's, Systems Integrators and VAR's whom provide solutions to numerous market segments. 

For more information on Process Control & Automation jobs or Engineering jobs, please contact Ricky Wilcocks on 01582 878810 or email RWilcocks@RedlineGroup.com.