Fourth Industrial Revolution

What is 'Industry 4.0’ and what does it mean for front-line workers?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, or 4IR as it is variously called, is the next phase in manufacturing.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, or 4IR as it is variously called, is the next phase in manufacturing. Image: Unsplash/James Yarema

Charlotte Edmond
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Emerging Technologies

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterized by widespread adoption of artificial intelligence, automation and other digital technologies.
  • The manufacturing sector is being disrupted by trends including increased demand for customized products and a changing workforce
  • Frontline workers offer their thoughts on how companies can successfully adopt technologies in a new report from the World Economic Forum.

First there was steam. Then there was electricity. Early automation followed. Now we are in the fourth industrial revolution – and this time it’s digital.

The manufacturing sector is at the confluence of a number of disruptive trends – from increasing demands for personalization of products to an ageing workforce. And smart new technologies driven by data and machine learning are at the heart of the industry’s response.

What is Industry 4.0?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Industry 4.0, or 4IR as it is variously called, is the next phase in manufacturing. It will be characterized by smart technologies and automation, which allow manufacturers to produce goods more efficiently, quickly, cheaply and/or sustainably.

It will be a step-change in the digital technologies and early automation the industry has increasingly leant on from the latter half of the 20th century to the early part of this one. It will see data insights and machine learning increasingly adopted into processes, creating smart systems that get smarter the more data they gather.

The “cyber-physical” space will grow – computers and systems will increasingly be connected and able to make decisions without human involvement. And human-machine interaction will change, with workers increasingly being assisted by or having their abilities expanded by technologies like virtual and augmented reality.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

artificial intelligence market size Industry 4.0 4IR
Artificial intelligence is projected to grow rapidly to be worth nearly two trillion dollars by 2030. Image: Statista

What does 4IR mean for frontline workers?

Although companies are increasingly investing in these technologies, to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, they must also ensure they are successfully introduced to workers on the “shop floor”.

Disruptive technologies may radically change jobs and lead to upskilling and reskilling needs in the workforce. To help inform the debate around how these technologies can be adopted in a human-centric, sustainable and effective way, The World Economic Forum and the University of Cambridge spoke to frontline workers from across the US, Europe and Asia.

Frontline workers companies Industry 4.0.
Frontline workers highlighted a number of considerations as companies move towards Industry 4.0. Image: World Economic Forum

How can companies best adopt new technologies?

Their report highlights key considerations before, during and after the adoption of new technologies.

Before introducing a new technology, managers must first help workers understand the bigger picture and how decisions were made. Workers should be allowed time to familiarize themselves with new technologies, with regular demonstrations and chances to try them out themselves.

Workers also voiced a desire to be involved in brainstorming, and end users should also be given a chance to provide feedback.

While the new technology is being introduced workers need to be supported, with managers bearing in mind the variety of learning needs and preferences they may have. It may be beneficial to create super users or technology champions.

After introducing new technology companies should continue to monitor and collect feedback, revising and revisiting training resources and helping to support new employees. Many of the workers interviewed could see new uses for technologies or ways to improve systems but often these ideas are lost because workers feel disconnected from management, the report found.

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Related topics:
Fourth Industrial RevolutionForum InstitutionalEmerging TechnologiesJobs and the Future of Work
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