Factories Reimagined: Will Factory Work Become a Top Job Option for Young People?

Factories in the future will definitely look different than today. As the fourth industrial revolution transforms manufacturing from mass production to mass customization, factory workers will increasingly need to apply new ICT to work remotely, collaborate with robots or use AI-based assistants, to increase their performance while developing further their creative, innovative and improvisational skills. Advanced technologies offer factory workers unprecedented opportunities to organize their jobs in a more autonomous way. Industrial work, jobs and skills are therefore being radically rethought.

For its 2020 conference in Seattle, AAAS invited researchers from Europe, along with NIST, to present their vision and findings how future factories may provide both tempting new career options to skilled young people and concrete support to current workers in acquiring new skills. This discussion is timely. The European Union is committed to and invests in a thoroughly human-centric approach to AI. In addition, it will be important to pave the way for next-generation robots capable of smooth interactions with humans.

Upon taking office on December 1, President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced March 9 as a deadline to deliver a series of new policy plans on AI, climate change and a new Industrial Strategy where research and innovation will take center stage. This follows the ambitious ‘Green Deal’ putting Europe on track to reach net-zero global warming emissions by 2050. Europe wants to be a front-runner in climate friendly industries and clean technologies and regarding future factory work that will be highlighted in this session from the viewpoints of technology and business, psychology and sociology.

The session will include discussions on new skills required, the nature of work, future work’s cognitive demands, labor processes and work organization, as well as their impact on workers’ wellbeing. The session’s presenters include European and US experts and Dr. Eija Kaasinen from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland as chair. Research activities in Europe have been supported under the European Union’s Research & Innovation Framework Program “Horizon 2020”, under a focused cluster on Factories of the Future – Human-Centered Factories, contributing to supporting the upskilling the work force and making it fit for the digital transformation.

K. C. Morris will provide examples of new skill sets factory workers need, many of which invite creativity and allow workers to avoid tedious tasks. Morris will explain how automation improves production efficiency. AI-based analysis of informal machine maintenance logs, for instance, help identify previously hidden obstacles related to machine malfunctions. As a congressional fellow on Capitol Hill working with Congressman Tom Reed, Co-chair of the House Manufacturing Caucus, Morris will also outline Congress’s role in helping to ensure that automated manufacturing becomes a reality in America. Large, strong, high-speed robots traditionally kept behind physical safeguards may soon be working more collaboratively with factory workers, thanks to advanced sensor technologies. The potential impacts of such collaborations on the psychological safety of workers are unknown. System designers currently have no available tools for evaluating such changes.

Professor Sarah Fletcher of Cranfield University in the UK will share research investigating the key psychological effects on humans working collaboratively with, or in close proximity to large industrial robots. Fletcher’s team is developing practical tools to enhance robot design and evaluating how these new designs impact human trust in large robots. These efforts are also helping companies evaluate their readiness for the introduction of collaborative systems. As collaborations between factory 2 workers and robots increases, questions about how tasks should be organized in ‘smart factories’ remain largely unexplored. Who gets the profits of different material and immaterial outputs also remains a question.

Dr. Anu-Hanna Anttila, a researcher from Finland, will address questions, complicated by the fact that robots, unlike their human counterparts, make decisions based on data alone and in the absence of ethics. Resulting situations can take a toll on the psyche of factory workers, whose rights and needs must be brought to the forefront.

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