How Will Digital Workers Replace 3 in 4 Jobs?27 January 2023
[Image Credit: Centelli]
Industry 4.0 has provided a revolutionary paradigm through which to restructure the business world. Transforming design, production and distribution capacities, its influence has now spread to the people behind the work.
Having freshly emerged from the disruption of COVID-19, a global catastrophe revealing just how inflexible the manufacturing industry’s patterns tend to be in the face of unexpected upheaval, more and more companies are turning to digitization to safeguard their operations moving forward.
Laying testament to this trend, the global digital workplace was slated at USD 27.33 billion in 2021 by Grand View Research, predicted to expand at a CAGR of 22.3% as we move towards 2030.
Beyond this, technology has dug its roots into the way our society now functions, setting new standards for success difficult to grasp without digitization’s value-add. New ways to integrate with the increasingly digital business landscape, tying into and strengthening digital threads, are continuing to surface.
Yet, these innovations do not come without their complexities. This is especially the case where digitization specifically targets the replacement of typically human activities, such as with ‘automated’ or ‘autonomous’ devices.
‘Digital employees’ are one such invention.
In this article, we conduct a deep dive into just what a ‘digital worker’ is, and survey how their creation will become crucial to the composition of today’s manufacturing workforce.
What is a ‘digital employee’?
A digital employee is exactly what the name implies: an intelligently automated digital system with the ability to complete tasks conventionally assigned to humans. At that, they are designed to do so in a ‘human’ way.
According to The International Business Machines Corporation, the ability to flexibly and realistically cooperate with people is an integral building block within these systems: “they understand human intent, respond to questions and take action on the human’s behalf, leaving humans with control, authority, and an enhanced experience”.
In opposition to the ‘bots’ now in frequent use across business websites, such as AI driven customer service correspondents, digital employees are designed to independently complete jobs from beginning to end, rather than offering one-off solutions as a single stage within a predominantly human process.
Which manufacturing jobs are making the cut for the digital job market?’
The most common use-cases for digital workers are those which humans conventionally struggle to enjoy: namely, repetitive tasks that divert attention from more stimulating duties. In manufacturing, a sphere defined by streams of repetitive processes and heavy administrative work, many roles are suited well to being reimagined digitally.
This can take many forms. From a worker designed to supervise the maintenance of stock in a business’ warehouse, to a worker dedicated towards relaying basic product information to customers, the value-add of these new digital recruits spans all stages of production, from beginning to end.
Regardless of their specific positioning within the product life-cycle, however, one overarching purpose unites them all: their amplification of human productivity. Digital employees are all ultimately implemented to create more space for human workers and their productivity to thrive.
As articulated by leading IT company Accenture, “Human and machine—each on their own—won’t be enough to drive businesses in the coming decades. Tomorrow’s leading enterprises will be those that know how to meld the two effectively”.
This notion of collaboration forms the heart from which digital employees are given life. Shouldering repetitive and menial tasks prioritises bigger, high-stakes operations, bringing human employees closer to the tasks which make the biggest difference.
Embracing Hybridity in a Digital Era
Hybridity has been cropping up in varied business contexts for several years now, especially following COVID-19 reign, requiring new standards of flexibility. Indeed, according to Slack’s Economist Impact report, “67.5% of business leaders […] describe agility as more important now than ever”.
In the manufacturing sphere, this notion is already gaining momentum. Hybrid technologies, for instance, are witnessing an uptick in popularity, expanding production scope and combining the various advantages of different approaches to optimise throughput. Rather than pitting ‘additive’ and ‘subtractive’ against one another as polar opposites, industries are increasingly discovering the power of their compatibility in combination.
The introduction of digital employees has taken this sentiment and implemented it in an entirely new context: the workforce. Along with it, a new echelon of operative standards are being unveiled.
Able to work day and night without tiring, and producing results with accuracy surpassing human abilities, the AI employee fills the gap opened by the tendency towards demotivation and inconsistency in humans. Tasks alternatively relying on human unpredictability – such as innovative ideation, negotiation, and complex judgement – are in this way complemented by the solid foundation formed by automated work.
Manufacturing businesses are being given a tool to break out of tunnel-visioned focus on consistency. With repetitive tasks adopted by digital systems, working efforts can be directed towards upscaling rather than safely plateauing.
More than ever before, innovation is receiving the platform it needs to flourish.
What Does the Journey to Digital Employment Look Like?
Though the widespread debut of digital employees within manufacturing workforces stands as a powerful end-goal, a long path lies preceding it, lined by a host of complex considerations.
For one, supporting a smooth transition from a purely human workforce to a hybrid one will be challenging, particularly in the wake of 5.8 million jobs in the industry already being lost over the past 10 years (McKinsey).
Though digital employees embody a firmly human-centred design, specifically intended to augment the workplace experience of real people, concerns surrounding just how much we are willing to rely on them are bound to surface. This is especially the case when replacement lies at the centre of their implementation.
This issue, however, is not insurmountable.
Though ‘replacement’ is the term this article has employed, this can take on a multitude of different meanings. IBM notes that digital employees “can help companies relocate their workforce to more strategic tasks”; ‘replacement’ by way of readjusting job roles may be a particularly useful approach.
Peeling away tasks which would be more successfully automated and infusing greater value into those for which human qualities are aptly suited will both help to physically expand the digital workforce and maintain the value of human employment.
A few further approaches to easing the transition can be forecasted. According to Ying Zhou, director of the University of York’s ‘Future of Work Research Centre’, “it seems likely that employees will be required to develop higher levels of skills as a result of this wave of technology development than they had been in the past.” Reskilling, then, will go hand in hand with the implementation of a digital workforce, an initiative which will importantly support those whose jobs come to gain entirely new meaning.
Just as with hybrid technologies, bringing ‘additive’ and ‘subtractive’ into harmony, the subtraction of automatable work and the addition of more complex proficiencies to the existing workforce will shape its road towards transformation.
Overall, however, the specific nature of technology’s increasing involvement in the workplace is difficult to pin down and categorise. A 2022 research article for Industry and Innovation journal exploring the employment implications of additive manufacturing, for example, noted “more mixed findings on the impact on total employment” where technology is concerned.
The shift to hybrid employment will inevitably become entangled with the properties of a future we cannot completely predict.
A New Dawn for the Workspace
The manner in which digital workers are set to ‘replace’ 3 in 4 jobs is not as straightforward as an algorithm filling the gap that a human employee leaves behind.
In exactly the way that collaboration powers the value of digital employees, the transition to a hybrid workforce must itself involve investing equal effort into both of its sides. Listening to human employees and honing algorithms accordingly to maximise benefits to the workforce, as well as supporting workers as the employment landscape shifts, will be imperative.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that today we stand a mere few footsteps away from the starting line where AI employees are concerned.
In 2014, Gartner predicted that a large segment of our workforce would be composed of digital workers by 2025. As we begin a new chapter in 2023 – swiftly approaching Gartner’s D-day – perhaps the forms on the horizon will begin to take firmer shape.
Enjoyed this? Read our previous article, ‘3 Unexpected Ways Additive Manufacturing Can Drive A Circular Economy’.
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