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The 4th Industrial Revolution: Must-Have Skills for Engineers

Posted on December 1st, 2015 by in Chemical Manufacturing Excellence

With the ubiquity of ‘smart’ products in our daily lives, it’s not surprising that the ways in which products are developed and delivered to the market are also increasingly interconnected and intelligent. A broad label for this concept is smart manufacturing and my favorite description of it is this one from California Manufacturing Technology Consulting® (CMTC):

Smart Manufacturing (a.k.a. Industry 4.0) unites data, technology, environmentally-conscious perspectives, the foresight of economic growth and political input to set the manufacturing industry on the path towards never-before-seen innovation. It aims to bring manufacturing companies into the future with improved worker safety, quicker production and fewer emissions while driving more competition in the global marketplace.”

Quite simply, smart manufacturing warrants our attention because it can help organizations more rapidly, sustainably, and effectively create solutions for our increasingly complex world (and world problems).

An Accelerating Movement

Highlighted in 2011 within Germany’s push to infuse next generation technologies into manufacturing, the smart manufacturing or Industry 4.0 movement has recently picked up steam among industry and thought leaders. A May 2015 article from Wired magazine points to governments in Germany, China, the United States, Japan and South Korea leading the charge towards creating global standards and systems for making factories smarter. The article also features Prof. Detlef Zühlke, head of the German Artificial Intelligence Research Centre (DFKID), as anticipating the first round of ‘smart factories’ going into operation in the next 2 years, and widespread global adoption in the next decade.

Indeed, developing trends like big data and cloud computing seem to be helping the likes of GE and General Mills, companies which have been using smart manufacturing tactics for over a decade, reap more rewards and up their game in the last couple of years.

The Skills to Win

All this talk about the Internet of Things, Big Data and Cyber-Physical Systems is garnering mixed reactions, ranging from excited and curious to fearful and resistant. If this is truly an unstoppable movement, then industry leaders and staff must consider implications. How will the workforce keep up and evolve? What will a regular work day be like in 2, 5, or 10 years? And (gasp!), will the factory of the future even need people in it?

There are conflicting views on whether more or less staff will be needed to handle numerous new systems and technology tools. Interestingly, there seems to be consensus that new or different capabilities will be expected of existing and new workers – including fundamental competencies that go far beyond obvious technical skills like data management, analytics and technology know-how.

Below I share ideas on 4 skills that will help engineers compete and deliver in an age of smart manufacturing:

  • Systems Thinking: Systems thinking is “the process of understanding how those things which may be regarded as systems influence one another within a complete entity or larger system”. As the below presentation slide from the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor shows, manufacturing is no longer about just production. In an environment wherein one can reduce manufacturing costs, disruptions, quality issues, and cycle times using insights from various  sub-systems across the value chain, the most valuable workers will be those who can instinctively make decisions, identify issues and generate ideas with an understanding of the entire ecosystem of new technologies, processes and data sources

Source: Presentation by Sir Mark Walport at the EPSRC ‘Manufacturing the Future’ conference on 23 September 2014.

  • Data Savviness: I mention the use of instinct above, but it’s inevitable that pure ‘gut’ decisions will become a thing of the past when smart manufacturing becomes widely adopted. As CMTC richly describes in this blog post, all workers would essentially become ‘knowledge workers’, making decisions and finding and characterizing problems based on data. That being said, analyzing data without taking the practical context into account is quite the myopic approach. The best decision-makers and problem-solvers are those who leverage data alongside practical experience and an in-depth understanding of how a system works.
  • Collaboration and Communication: With staff freed up from routine mechanical tasks, there will be more room for creative thinking and intensifying competition in product innovation. For example, China’s “Made in 2025 plan, which draws much inspiration from Germany’s Industry 4.0, aims to shift the country’s manufacturing industry towards producing more innovative, proprietary products. To reap the rewards of smart manufacturing, companies must more than ever facilitate peer interactions that fuel innovation. The shift away from ‘hands-on’ physical tasks likely also means that remote working scenarios will become even more ubiquitous, requiring workers to have more and different collaboration and communication skills.
  • Adaptability: With evolving technologies constantly impacting the way people work (or have to work), continuous training and a willingness to learn and change will be required of all workers. Not surprisingly, getting staff to accept change seems to be the first and most important hurdle to overcome when rolling out smart manufacturing efforts. In CMTC’s in-depth observations of this topic, they highlight a revealing quote:

“For us, [the biggest hurdle] wasn’t technology. It wasn’t capabilities. It was changing what people did every day when they came into work,”

– Jim Wetzel, Director of Global Reliability at General Mills and Chairman of Smart Manufacturing Leadership Coalition (SMLC)


Change is both exciting and intimidating. I do wonder, with the 4th Industrial Revolution coming, how ready is the engineering workforce?

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