Production automation and employment

Home Automation Production automation and employment

Production automation has been a hot topic for a number of years. It argued that many employers across the globe are eager to reduce staff and increase autonomous systems. Industry 4.0 is arguably no different from any of the other industrial revolutions from the perspective of employers or employees. This contrast between employee and employer around automation is not new. Rather, it heralds back to the industrial revolution when protest was rife around the introduction of machines in mills and farms around the world. In a paper by Vermeulen et al., (2018) they suggest an ongoing debate among labour economists on the effects of the introduction of technology to increase productivity in general and of automation by means of robots and AI on employment in particular.

The age of automation

According to a report by PwC, by the mid-2030s one-third of all jobs face the risk of automation. To expand upon their report, they suggest the early 2020s would algorithmic automation, followed by augmented and finally autonomous. PwC argues, that while automation is set to continue its distribution across the 29 countries analysed will not be equal. In fact, they estimate long-term automation in the Nordic and Asian countries to remain significantly less than those of western Europe at 20-25% to 40% respectively, with ‘low skilled’ workers being the most at risk

Automation and estimated integration times

Production automation and protest, past and present

In the UK during the period 1811-1816, a movement that became known as the Luddites struck back at the increased use of automation. They rioted, smashed machines and even set fire to business owners’ homes. Similarly, the ‘swing riots‘ of 1830 saw protesters destroy threshing machines which had been rapidly replacing manual labourers leading to a surge in unemployment. Although perhaps extreme examples of human vs. machine (on some level), similar protests, albeit not as dramatic, have been witnessed in recent years. In 2019, french supermarket workers protested the rise in automated checkouts. In that same year, Los Angeles port workers protested against the rise of automation and loss of jobs and Missouri saw protesters push for a ban on autonomous trucks. Such protests have not been the first nor will they be the last.

Automation as just another industry transistion or something


Vermueulen et al., (2018) argue that further automation may well be economically and socially unsustainable in the long run. While some may consider this as some sort of ‘singularity’ event where in the mid 2030s machines while surprase human cognative abilities – thats another story and one which has long been predicited, surpassed, changed etc. etc. Rather, Vermueulen et al., (2018) suggest that ultimatly we may reach a state of eqlibriumn. In which, automation is utilised approatly to supplament human cognative abilities. This is perhaps what PwC mean in their report when they refer to ‘wave 2 – late 2020: augmentation’. There are certainly a number of tools available which ‘augment’ human abilitiy, its only natural that this increases.

Carbonero et al., (2020) argue that robotics specically have displaced 11% of workers in emerging economies between 2011-2014. During that same peroid however, robotics have only displaced 0.43%. This is an important distinction that is often overlooked, not all automation is the same and is largely influenced by prevalent industries within a region.


Vermeulen, B., Kesselhut, J., Pyka, A. and Saviotti, P.P., 2018. The impact of automation on employment: just the usual structural change?. Sustainability, 10(5), p.1661.

Tony Robinson

Currently studying for a PhD in computer science and informatics, I am an inquisitive electrical and electronic engineer with a special interest in bioinformatics and genomic data analysis - particularly hardware acceleration of genomic data analysis on high-performance computing platforms such as FPGA, Cloud, HPC cluster, GPU.

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