In the last few decades, the world has seen a rapid transformation in how we live, work, and communicate, primarily due to technological advancements. This shift is commonly referred to as Industry 4.0, a term that represents the fourth industrial revolution. With Industry 4.0, we are witnessing the integration of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, and others into the manufacturing industry, making it smarter, more efficient, and more connected than ever.
As Industry 4.0 continues to reshape the manufacturing industry, it is also reshaping the job market, creating a need for a new set of skills and competencies. This means that educators and institutions are responsible for preparing students for the demands of the future job market and ensuring they have the skills necessary to succeed in the Industry 4.0 era. In this article, we will explore the meaning of Industry 4.0, the skills required for it, and strategies for preparing students for this revolution.
What is Industry 4.0, and why prepare for it?
Since its early days, the manufacturing industry has undergone multiple transformations thanks to technological advancements brought by the first, second, third, and now fourth industrial revolution, also known as Industry 4.0. From water and steam power generation to electricity and assembly lines to computers and automation, manufacturers worldwide are now adopting advanced technologies to streamline processes, increase efficiency, and reduce costs.
While the technologies and applications of Industry 4.0 vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, here are the most common ones the fourth tech era operates through:
- Smart sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) devices that collect and analyze data in real-time to improve production processes, reduce waste, and prevent equipment breakdowns.
- Robotics and automation systems that can perform repetitive tasks faster, with higher precision and quality, and with less risk of errors and accidents.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) algorithms that can analyze large data sets and identify patterns, trends, and insights that can be used to optimize processes, reduce costs, and increase efficiency.
- Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, which allows manufacturers to produce complex parts and products with minimal waste and lead time, and greater customization and flexibility.
- 3D scanning technologies that allow manufacturers to create accurate and detailed digital replicas of physical objects and environments for quality control, inspection, and reverse engineering purposes.
- Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) technologies that can improve training and maintenance processes by providing immersive and interactive experiences that simulate real-life scenarios and enhance learning and retention.
- Cloud computing and Big Data analytics that enable manufacturers to store, process, and analyze large amounts of data from various sources, including sensors, machines, and humans, and use it to improve decision-making and innovation.
- Cybersecurity solutions that protect sensitive data, intellectual property, and critical infrastructure from cyber threats and attacks.
Despite the optimization and, in some cases, reduction of human resources due to the introduction of these technologies, a recent study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute states that Industry 4.0 technologies are likely to create more jobs than they destroy. Even before the pandemic, one of the industry’s significant challenges was a lack of skilled labor. According to the study, the manufacturing skills gap could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs in 2030 in the U.S. alone and cost up to $1 trillion.
To address the growing skill gap, it’s crucial to provide relevant education and training not only to the existing workforce but also to students still choosing their path and considering manufacturing as one of their options. As Industry 4.0 technologies become more pervasive and influential, they will require a new set of skills and knowledge from future manufacturing workers to succeed in the job market. Some of the manufacturing jobs that will be common in 2030 don’t exist yet, while the current ones may no longer be in place soon.
That’s why students must prepare for the new, constantly changing reality of Industry 4.0 to find meaningful and rewarding careers.
Skills required for Industry 4.0
As Industry 4.0 continues to evolve and reshape the manufacturing industry, so do the new jobs and career pathways, creating a demand for new skills and competencies. Robots and computers already perform some of the routine, mundane, and repetitive tasks, allowing workers to focus more on strategic decision-making, problem-solving, and communication activities. On the other hand, educational systems are having a hard time keeping up with all the technological changes happening in the industry. As a result, there is still a massive gap between the demand for skilled workers and what students are learning.
To succeed in the Industry 4.0 era, students must acquire skills that combine technical, cognitive, and socio-emotional abilities. These skills can vary depending on the industry, job role, and level of responsibility, but some of the must-haves are:
- Digital literacy: using digital tools and platforms to communicate, collaborate, and solve problems. Examples include using social media, email, instant messaging, video conferencing, cloud storage, and project management software.
- Data analysis: the ability to collect, process, interpret, and visualize data from various sources and formats to gain insights, make decisions, and improve performance. Examples include using Excel, Tableau, Python, or R to analyze sales data, customer feedback, or production metrics.
- Automation and robotics: the ability to design, program, operate, and maintain automated and robotic systems that can perform repetitive, hazardous, or complex tasks. Examples include using Arduino, Raspberry Pi, or PLCs to control a robotic arm, conveyor belt, 3D printer, or 3D scanner.
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning: the ability to understand, apply, and develop algorithms and models to learn from data, make predictions, and optimize processes. Examples include using neural networks, decision trees, or reinforcement learning to create chatbots, predictive maintenance systems, or supply chain optimization tools.
- Creativity and innovation: the ability to generate, evaluate, and implement new ideas, products, or processes to create value for customers, stakeholders, and society. Examples include designing a new product line, developing a marketing campaign, or improving a production process to reduce waste or energy consumption.
- Critical thinking and problem-solving: the ability to analyze, evaluate, and solve complex and ambiguous problems by applying logic, evidence, and creativity. Examples include troubleshooting a machine malfunction, resolving a customer complaint, or identifying the root cause of a quality issue.
- Communication and collaboration: the ability to express ideas, listen actively, and work effectively with others from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. Examples include giving a presentation, participating in a team project, or resolving a conflict with a colleague.
Industry 4.0 opens up many challenging and exciting opportunities for students. It requires a deep technological skillset and soft skills, such as creativity, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration, that are essential for innovation and competitiveness. Students who can develop and apply these skills in the context of Industry 4.0 are likely to be in high demand by employers and have more career advancement and personal growth opportunities.
How to prepare students for Industry 4.0
Preparing students for Industry 4.0 requires a joint and proactive approach from educators and institutions. Here are some strategies for effectively preparing students for the demands of the future manufacturing job market:
Integrate Industry 4.0 technologies in the classroom
To keep students up-to-date and give them hands-on experience with all the recent advanced technologies used in manufacturing, educators can incorporate Industry 4.0 technologies directly into the classroom.
This could include using virtual reality simulations to teach complex concepts or incorporating robotics and automation into the curriculum. It can also involve setting up in-house maker spaces where students can learn to operate various hardware and software tools, such as 3D printers, 3D scanners, laser cutters, CNC machines, CAD software, and 3D sculpting software. Such places can expose students to the world of high-tech technologies and give them a perspective on what their day-to-day at work can look like. Having experience operating a 3D scanner or using CAD software can enrich their learning experience and give them an edge over others when looking for that dream job.
One example of such an initiative is the Design and Innovation Makerspace in the College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Launched in 2017 after the overhaul of an old engineering library, the Makerspace offers their students access to a broad range of very impressive high-tech equipment, including 3D printers, 3D scanners, CNC routers, laser cutters, drones, VR/AR headsets, and more. Largely student-run, Makerspace strives to empower students by creating a community immersed in emerging technologies and focused on creating innovative products. For instance, one of the most popular and versatile pieces of equipment used by students from various faculties is Creaform Academia’s portable 3D scanners. With them, students can easily digitize any physical object, whether an auto part or a historical artifact, and bring it into the digital world.
If setting up such a space is out of your budget, it’s still possible to expose students to all the latest tools by partnering with a local maker space or a science center. Such places can provide access to high-tech equipment and organize full training for teachers, so they can later introduce such classes into their curricula.
Traditional shop classes can no longer sustain or prepare students for the growing industry demands for highly skilled workers, which is why integrating Industry 4.0 technologies, such as additive manufacturing, robotics, and coding, into the schools’ programs is necessary.
Collaborate with industry partners and professionals
Partnering with local businesses and industry leaders can provide students with valuable opportunities to get real-world experience, learn about the latest trends and technologies, and gain insights into the skills and competencies required for Industry 4.0 jobs. To achieve this, educators can collaborate with industry partners and professionals in multiple ways.
For instance, they can invite industry experts as guest lecturers to teach hands-on classes or workshops on Industry 4.0-related subjects, where students can learn some practical skills, or they can share their career journey and answer questions that students might have.
Another way is to organize regular tours of the factories and production facilities, where students can observe some of the manufacturing processes and what the daily life of a manufacturing worker can look like. Finally, educators can provide students with opportunities to participate in internships or apprenticeships with industry partners to get real-life experience that will help them in their future career paths.
Regardless of the format, working with industry leaders can give schools the latest industry insights and knowledge they won’t get anywhere else.
Provide mentorship, coaching, and career guidance
Navigating the complex and dynamic Industry 4.0 job market can be overwhelming, especially if the two factors above haven’t yet been introduced into the school system. Despite all the technological breakthroughs and innovations introduced in recent years, the manufacturing industry is still publicly perceived as dangerous, dirty, and having low job security.
To change that perception and create a pipeline of qualified applicants, educators must provide mentorship, coaching, and career guidance for students who aspire to pursue a career in Industry 4.0. For example, schools can create mentoring programs that connect students with experienced professionals who can share their knowledge, skills, and networks and provide feedback, advice, and support. Schools can also offer career counseling and job placement services that help students identify their strengths, interests, and goals and match them with relevant job opportunities and employers.
They can also highlight the opportunities, rewards, and benefits of pursuing a career in this field by showing students the salary upside of working in manufacturing. Give them real-world examples of what they can expect to make if they have certain skills and certifications. One way to do so is to create credits that can be used toward certifications when students graduate. Let students accumulate credits or work toward certifications they can take when they graduate. With these in hand, they can either go on to further study or get a job.
As we see, Industry 4.0 keeps transforming the manufacturing industry, creating new opportunities and challenges for students preparing to enter the workforce. To ensure that the next generation of workers is ready for these opportunities and challenges, we must prepare students for Industry 4.0 jobs, update the curriculum to focus on emerging technologies and industry trends, and establish partnerships between educational institutions and industry leaders. By working together, we can bridge the skills gap and ensure that the manufacturing industry has access to the talent it needs to continue to grow and innovate.