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Questions, Questions, Questions
The increased digitalization of the manufacturing floor is de facto imposing structural changes on the role of human capital in the manufacturing environment. These changes can be observed in terms of societal impact (including aspects of training and skills), the integration of humans into a manufacturing floor that is more and more dominated by machines, legal and ethical concerns, and evolution with regard to negotiating power and the distribution of the workforce between large and small companies.
Legal and ethical questions
The ethical choice faced by those programming robots will certainly be the following: Should a life-threatening risk emerge, which element will be our priority? This ethical question can already be seen with regard to autonomous cars: If an autonomous vehicle finds itself in a situation where it can only protect the life of an individual by sacrificing the life of another individual, which individual should be “saved”, and which “sacrificed”? The driver, or the pedestrian?
Another obvious question of that of legal responsibility: In a case of damage to material property or human life (for the latter whether that “damage” is fatal or “merely” leads to injury), where does the legal responsibility lie?
Information on personal interactions between humans, including for example informal discussions, which might include an exchange of personal information, can be recorded. How can human workers be certain that robots are not working to hidden agendas set by their owners or their manufacturers? And, even if workers are not being spied on, how can we manage the perception of being spied on?
At a later point in time, robots—which will have become increasingly intelligent—may no longer be respecting priorities established by their designer or manufacturer, either because neither has foreseen some specific situation (and the autonomous vehicle offers us many excellent examples here) or because, at some ultimate stage in robots’ development, they are following their own priorities.
Rapidly increasing levels of digitalization (meaning also automation and digitalization) on the manufacturing floor have numerous potential business impacts with regard to productivity.. Larger companies can benefit from a greater potential for economies of scale than can SMEs. Larger companies’ motivation to invest is higher than that of smaller companies: investment that delivers even small gains in terms of cost or productivity promises significant advantages when scaled up. Larger companies also have a greater potential to invest as they usually have deeper pockets, along with easier access to financing. This mechanism may help create a virtuous circle for larger organizations: the more productive they become, the more digitalization they want and the more they can invest in digitalization (of course, seen through the eyes of SMEs this is a vicious circle).
The more a manufacturing company becomes digitalized, the more powerful its position with regard to its workers when it comes to negotiations. Further, a digitalized company can more easily subcontract services that it considers “nonessential”; here we can cite the massive use of subcontracting services to replace in-house Human Resources services. The capability is greater because of the availability of cash or credit lines, on the one hand, and on the other the capacity to justify the hiring of specialized personnel who can plan and perform new digital processes.
The distribution of the workforce can reasonably be expected to change, shifting the center of gravity of employment more and more toward small and medium-sized enterprises. Jobs at small companies can reasonably be considered to be more precarious, mainly due to the fragility of smaller organizations, in particular under the increasing pressure of the data- and technology-driven economy. We can, then, reasonably conclude that the transition to an increasingly technology- and data-based economy is globally increasing the precarity of jobs.
A very probable evolution of overall working conditions that the individual as employee is going to see over the coming years is an increase in free time due to the potential reduction in work time. Such a change is merely the result of increased productivity. In this situation, we are probably going to have two types of people with more free time on their hands, and this trend is apparent not only in the manufacturing sector but also in the sector of service provision. First, people that have sufficient financial resources to get by without working, thanks to regular incomes or accumulated cash. Second, people that do not have the necessary skills to find a job. For these people, more free time might mean greater stress levels, and certainly a need for further training.