What will the fourth industrial revolution mean for retail supply chains and jobs?
Both retailers and suppliers are moving to a new era of intelligent machines designed to eliminate waste in supply chains and update old business models. This effort, called Industry 4.0, was widely discussed at this week’s ProMat conference in Chicago, with several experts arguing that the disruption smart machines will cause to jobs in those supply chains needs to be addressed immediately.
Markus Lorenz, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, in his keynote presentation described Industry 4.0 as the fourth industrial revolution era that will connect machines and the Internet of Things. The new technology will conduct operations like sensing the freshest produce, then quickly picking and sorting items to send retailers or consumers the optimal product to meet their stated needs while significantly reducing waste. He further explained that cranes at port facilities are nearly smart enough to weigh containers in order to balance cargo on a ship as they are loading, thereby saving fuel and reducing CO2 emissions.
Automation in general and intelligent machines specifically will continue to result in the loss of jobs across industries, but human labor will still play a critical role in operations and beyond. Lorenz said the nature of that work will, however, be quite different in many sectors. His best advice was saved for those workers threatened by automation: “Stop thinking of yourself as a manual laborer and start thinking of yourself as solver of problems,” he told the group of material handling professionals. As an example, he said workers who currently load pallets at the end of a production line will very soon find themselves disintermediated by an automated pallet loader unless they can position themselves as experts in determining the optimal configurations of the unit load.