More than 80 years ago an economist, John Maynard, predicted a new disease he called ‘technological unemployment’, caused by the discovery of new technologies that would be used to perform tasks traditionally performed by hand or old machines.
Advanced manufacturing isn’t often discussed in Africa as yet, but is set to profoundly change the way factories operate.
In traditional manufacturing, many parts are built separately to form one part or product. For example, look at the conveyer belt manufacturing system created by Henry Ford in 1913. It required a worker to repeat one specific task throughout the day, making the same small component that would be merged with other components to form the final product.
Advanced manufacturing is using innovative technologies, referred to as disruptive technologies, to improve traditional products or processes. A part that traditionally needed several components can now be designed on screen and printed out to the exact specifications needed using a 3-D printer. The world is moving into an era where manufacturing is evolving to the point where technological advancements and improvements will come from the machines and systems themselves through predictive analytics, advanced control and smarter systems.
How will it impact jobs?
Change on this scale makes many worry about the sustainability of their own jobs. For example, mass picking techniques transformed agriculture, automation of assembly lines transformed automotive and textiles and, the internet age transformed industries, specifically the way we work and communicate with each other. Although many economists and pundits see advanced manufacturing as a threat to jobs, the transformation also creates opportunities for more strategic and creative skills, particularly for those who have the expertise to service or maintain moving parts.
While disruptive technology advances individual labour skills, it also stimulates the broader economy. In agriculture, for instance, the automation of crop reaping allowed farmers to produce products faster and more efficiently, leading to a drop in the price of food and allowing consumers to use their savings to buy other manufactured goods.
And its impact on the supply chain?
The flexibility of new systems makes it easier for suppliers to react quickly to urgent situations by automatically adjusting and responding. Disruptive technologies have the ability to predict a customers’ needs and allow manufacturers to be able to manufacture custom products at the speed dictated by the customer. Consumer needs will be met at a faster pace. A customer can walk into a store, request a products and, a tech savvy consultant can print it in real-time via 3-D printing if it’s not available in store.
What does this mean for Africa?
Advanced manufacturing technologies can rapidly change the nature of the African economy by improving the speed of product manufacturing and creating alternative skilled employment opportunities. Governments will have to adapt education systems to increase investments in mathematics and science as the increase of advanced manufacturing will result in the decreased demand of lower skills factory jobs.
What can be done to prepare the workforce?
Research from the World Economic Forum found that over five million jobs could be lost by 2020 as a result of the discovery of different technologies, but they also predicted that two million jobs will be created and of that, 65% will be in careers that are not yet invented.
GE’s Innovation Barometer found that innovators across the globe do not feel their education system is prepared to answer the future skills challenge. Many of the workforce challenges can be addressed by encouraging today’s youth to take up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. Advanced manufacturing firms also need to work alongside educators to establish curriculums that align the skills that students are learning in schools with the skills businesses will demand.
Governments, educators and the private sector also need to provide the relevant education to those whose jobs may be transitioned by technology. But workers also need to adapt their skills to capitalise on these new opportunities.
- GE Reports