Revolution in the World of Work

New technologies are revolutionizing the world of work. The goals are higher efficiency and a competitive advantage. Safety also remains a core focus.

Approximately 1,660 million metric tons of steel were produced worldwide in 2014. Accounting for over 800 million metric tons of this is China – the world’s biggest producer. Pig iron processing was previously a very labor intensive endeavor, both in terms of the amount of workers involved and the grueling physical effort. In modern steelworks, blast furnaces are controlled by touchscreen from a central control station. Yet even today, production is impossible without a smelter to monitor all the processes. To help deal with noise and temperatures approaching 800 degrees Celsius, a new helmet with integrated data-display visor is in development to improve work safety, as conventional emergency sirens and flashing lights struggle to reach steelworkers in heat-resistant protective workwear. When wearing the helmet and visor, digital warnings may be fed directly into a smelter’s field of vision via the visor.

The protective helmet was collaboratively developed by the electrical engineering faculty of the West Saxon University of Applied Sciences in Zwickau and Salzgitter AG subsidiary Gesis Gesellschaft für Informationssysteme mbH. The visor is tailored to industry needs, with high durability and an operating time of eight hours. It can also be used to issue work orders and aid with repairs and maintenance when connected with a remote maintenance center. Gesis Project Manager Thorsten Schulz believes that the visor will be production-ready by 2018. He can also foresee an adapted version of the helmet and visor being developed for use in the mining industry.

Change is finding its way into our daily lives with increasing regularity, and is also influencing the health sector. Aided by scans and CAD/CAM design, dental practices can automatically and digitally complete all stages of creating and fitting new dental prostheses in-house. Researchers are already working on the development of 3D printers to produce skin and even entire organs. Robots have long supported doctors with surgical procedures in hospital operating theaters. Automated systems do not tire, always remain steady and can perform minimally invasive procedures such as transurethral prostate resections, as well as abdominal surgery. Robots extend doctors’ capabilities and improve the ergonomics of the surgical workspace. Furthermore, surgeons can successfully perform surgery thousands of miles from their patient using video conferencing and surgical robots.

Algorithms and robots can support humans in certain activities, and even replace them. They play a decisive role in returning value creation industries to high-income countries. Sporting goods manufacturer Adidas is doing exactly this in building its Speedfactory in the German town of Ansbach. Around 500,000 pairs of shoes should leave the factory each year, with robots producing shoes around the clock from 2017. They are not just cheaper than human workers in the Far East, but can also adapt quickly to meet market demands and individual customer requests.

Sewing and gluing is not in the job description of the workers here in Ansbach. The Speedfactory’s 160 employees are predominantly technicians that operate and maintain the machines. By switching to on-demand production, warehousing becomes almost redundant. “We are working on all fronts to become more efficient,” said the long-time Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer. Another Speedfactory is destined to commence production in the Atlanta region in the US in 2017. This trend will lead to large-scale changes for emerging economies.

“Of course, digitalization and so-called Industry 4.0 also reduces the need for certain jobs,” says Professor Welf-Guntram Drossel, Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology IWU in Chemnitz. But there will also be demand for new jobs, in the field of product development for example. “A great many new jobs will be created in areas demanding human creativity,” asserts the production scientist.

Project Director for the World Economic Forum Till Leopold says that it is not only the technological revolution – with its artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, 3D printing, genetics and biotechnology – that will have immense consequences for global labor markets. In addition, there are massive developments happening in our society, such as the aging of populations in industrial nations. Emerging economies, at the other end of the spectrum, have very young workforces with increasing numbers of female workers. “When added together, the social factors are just as important as the technological ones, and will reinforce one another,” explains the economist.

Education will be of paramount importance. Especially in countries with high numbers of older workers and low influxes of new talent, it is in the interest of the economy to redouble efforts to educate the workforce and thereby remain competitive. “Good technical understanding is key,” states Leopold. Also in demand are complex problem-solving abilities, social skills and critical thinking. Lifelong learning is the key phrase. Both for each of us as individuals and companies as a whole.


Author: Regina Weinrich