Industry 4.0 and the future of work: How to prepare for the digital age

Fourth industrial revolution will transform the world of work with the introduction of automation, AI and other advanced tech

Industry 4.0 – or the fourth industrial revolution as it has become known – has the potential to change the landscape of the working world as we know it.

It is characterised by the integration of advanced technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced automation, to create interconnected and more advanced manufacturing and production systems designed to improve productivity and efficiencies.

According to Prof Graham Heaslip, head of the school of engineering at ATU Galway-Mayo, that process of change is already well under way.

“Engineers deal with real-world scenarios, and so the role is constantly evolving in order to meet the fluctuating needs of society and the environment.” Because of Industry 4.0, engineering is “transitioning toward a new technological renaissance”, Heaslip says.


“Utilising ingenuity, a constantly growing knowledge base and creativity, engineers will be key to facing the challenges that lie ahead,” he continues.

“Engineering is now advancing at a faster rate than ever before thanks to the rise of powerful technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing and the internet of things.

“Although mastery of these technologies will be critical in future engineering applications, it’s the evolution process itself that will truly shape and define the profession.”

So what does all this mean for the jobs market of the future? In 2017, Oxford academics published research on future employment and how susceptible jobs are to automation.

They concluded: “Intelligent machines are becoming more sophisticated and are expanding their skills, moving up the corporate ladder, showing increased productivity and retention rates, and threatening their human counterparts.”

The researchers also calculated how susceptible jobs are to automation based on nine key skills required to perform it: social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, assisting and caring for others, originality, fine arts, finger dexterity, manual dexterity and the need to work in a cramped work space.

A recent study released by McKinsey Global Institute reports that roughly a fifth of the global workforce will be impacted by the adoption of AI and automation, with the most significant impact in developed nations like the UK, Germany and US.

The World Economic Forum reports that 38 per cent of businesses believe AI and automation technology will allow employees to carry out new productivity-enhancing jobs.

Another 25 per cent of companies think automation will result in the emergence of new roles. The Economist predicts that 50 per cent of jobs are vulnerable to automation.

So what jobs are likely to be automated? Heaslip says students considering career options should “stop for a moment” and ask: could a robot or machine do this job better?

“Roles requiring employees to think on their feet and come up with creative and original ideas, for example artists, designers or engineers, hold a significant advantage in the face of automation,” he says.

“All of which means, if an occupation involves a high degree of social intelligence, negotiating skills, recognising cultural sensitivities, caring for others, creative or complex reasoning or perception and manipulation, they are unlikely to be automated.

“So, medical professionals, social workers, nurses, psychologists, engineers, teachers and writers can rest assured that they won’t be replaced by robots any time soon.

“In contrast, certain sales jobs like telemarketers and bank clerks, even though these may involve interactive tasks but do not necessarily require a high degree of social intelligence, leave them exposed to automation.”

He says anyone in doubt about this “rise in the machines” need only examine the banking sector in Ireland where human roles have been significantly reduced.

PwC director of people and organisation consulting Laoise Mullane says emerging technologies are currently being adopted by manufacturers globally to help transform their productivity, flexibility, ESG and cost performance.

“The technologies will leverage new value from operational data – much of which has been captured for years but underutilised,” she says. “In particular, data analytics capabilities are being developed, which will enable them to manage their operations in a predictive fashion.

“This presents an exciting opportunity for their workforce and prospective graduates to deploy new skills at some of the most sophisticated manufacturing facilities.”

On the future of work, Mullane says the widely available nature of these new technologies is “an exciting time” as the impact they can have on businesses is “transformative”.

“As the technology that we use to do our jobs changes, so do the capabilities that our people require to be effective in their roles,” she says. “As a result, organisations should focus on upskilling their people to use these new technologies.

“By successfully harnessing the power of AI, businesses have the ability to automate repetitive tasks and free up their people to engage in more higher value tasks. They could also look to foster innovation and enable people to explore opportunities for implementing AI across the organisation.”

TU Dublin lecturer Dr Rajesh Jaiswal, who teaches its masters in computing in human-centred AI, points out that AI increasingly is already replacing human decision-making processes in areas such as recruitment and loan approvals.

“TU Dublin is teaching students to consider the ethical implications of these technologies as we believe this is the best preparation for the digital age,” he says. “It is of paramount importance that our students are enabled to design AI with a human-centric lens.

“TU Dublin offers a level nine human-centred AI masters course delivered on our Tallaght campus, as well as online.

“It is funded from the European Union’s Connecting Europe Facility, and students have the opportunity to travel and interact with European experts and discuss thesis project ideas that came from industry and research organisations with real-world applications.

“The course focuses on transparency, trustworthiness and explainability in AI decision-making, as significant decisions should be fair and explainable.

“The programme’s emphasis is on exploiting technology to provide ethical solutions to problems, and the curriculum takes a human-centred approach, considering the impact of technology on human rights from the start.

“The course covers the entire AI lifecycle, including data used to train systems, system development and maintaining accuracy in real-world situations.

“It also provides graduates with the skills and knowledge required to develop, implement and manage AI applications that meet the ethical standards required under upcoming EU legislation.”

Dr Therese Hume, a lecturer at ATU in the department of computing and electronic engineering, says manufacturing has been a market leader in forging the way for capitalising on the potential of emerging technologies.

So, how do we prepare our graduates for a future in a rapidly changing marketplace?

“Some things remain constant, such as managing people, organisational behaviour and marketing,” she says. “While the way we market our products is in a complete spin at present, organisations still need to market.

“Financial accounting activities are still required to balance the books. Therefore, the need to understand finance and the terminology used remains. The challenges managers faced 50 years ago are the same as the today.

“It is important to remember technology is only an enabler of change. It will not transform. So, while these technologies are causing disruption, it is important to state the wastage associated with digitally transforming runs into billions of dollars across the globe annually.

“Return on investment is poor, and if you wrap your outdated processes in silicon and software, this will only result in really expensive poor processes.”

Hume says TU Dublin runs a number of courses that are designed to assist students in grappling with this new world.

“We strive to ensure that our graduates are prepared for the future world of work regardless of their programme of study,” she says. “For example, the students of our business awards do class presentations using VR headsets.

“In our Bachelor of Arts programmes in business and ICT, we ensure that students work closely with industry partners on real-world problems that organisations face by doing class projects with industry partners. These projects include AI, data analytics and cybersecurity.

“In our Bachelor of Arts in Social Care Practice, we are working on including AR [augmented reality] simulations into our programme to prepare students for the world that they will graduate and work in.

“This idea emerged from our student entrepreneurship IDEaS [innovation, digital environmental and sustainability] hub.

“Students felt from their own experience working on placement in the sector that these emerging technologies could be used, and we are working on bringing this to reality.

“In our Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Politics, our academic teams emphasise environmental sustainability and its importance from a societal and political perspective.

“So, while digital technology is without question causing disruption and the grand challenges of the future remain, we can already see the advantages of using these technologies to support students in a future workplace and address some of these challenges.”