Technology and the Future of European Industry

We’re in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, dubbed Industry 4.0 by the experts, and this time the revolution is a digital one. European industry has been quick to adopt new technologies in the consumer sector — everyone is happy to try out the latest smartphone or gaming console — but many industries, such as construction, textiles, and steel, are still clinging to outdated methods.

What impact will technology have on the future of European industry, and what changes can we expect to see in the next decade?

3D Printing — A Key Innovative Driver

Early in July, industry experts from across Europe gathered at the Industry 2030 High-Level Industrial Roundtable to discuss what it would take for European industry to succeed through 2030 and beyond. This collection of some of the greatest industrial minds in Europe determined that, among other things, 3D printing was going to play a key role in moving the European industry into the 21st century.

3D printing is quickly emerging as one of the most innovative advances that manufacturing and industry have seen in decades, and nearly every sector is finding applications for this new technology.

In spite of this, the European Parliament recently passed a resolution that calls for increased regulation when it comes to 3D printing and intellectual property rights that could potentially stifle innovation in the coming decades.

The Emergence of Collaborative Robotics

Robotics has been part of the European industry for decades. Companies have been adopting collaborative robots, or cobots, for more than a decade now. Cobots rely on pneumatic power — pressurized air — to move their robotic arms through preprogrammed tasks.

They aren’t a replacement for industrial robotics — instead, they’re designed to work alongside these larger, heavier bots, providing more flexibility and greater customization. Smaller cobots also help companies create a safer work environment where human employees can work alongside their robotic counterparts. This collaboration wasn’t possible with the large and often unwieldy robotic arms of the past.

Traditional robotics companies were caught completely off guard by the push toward cobot technology in the early 2010s. Companies that manufactured large robotic arms didn’t think anyone would want smaller cobots because their size limited their functionality, but rising labor costs and skilled labor shortages around the globe are pushing more companies to find alternatives, including collaborative robotics. This trend will fuel digital innovation into the next decade and beyond.

Creating Europe’s Digital Workforce

One of the most significant challenges facing the European industry in the push toward digital innovation is leaving much of the existing workforce behind. Companies will need to take on the challenge of creating the continent’s new digital workforce to keep up with these changes. Right now, 73% of employers are facing a skills shortage in their industry. With more than 50% of existing jobs at risk for automation, employers need to change the way they look at training and hiring.

Companies can start by declaring their intention to create a digital workforce to support the European industry as it moves into the next decade. They will also need to take the time to define the skills gap they’re experiencing. Once established, it’s easier to figure out what changes need to be made to reduce the deficit and improve the workforce.

Companies will also to create a leadership culture that encourages others to adopt a digital mindset. Businesses that insist on clinging to old or outdated techniques and technologies will be left behind. The goal here isn’t to leave companies behind — it’s to encourage them to make the changes necessary to build the digital future that European industry deserves.

Looking Toward the Future

The future of the European industry is digital, and it’s up to today’s companies to move into Industry 4.0 with their eyes open, aware of the challenge and the potential rewards. 3D printing and collaborative robotics will both be key innovative players, but the most important thing will be the push toward creating a digital workforce. It’s vital to train new employees in the skills they’ll need to thrive in Industry 4.0 as it continues to change the industrial and manufacturing landscape.

European industry will face several challenges in the next decade, starting with the possibility that Brexit could stifle innovation within the European Union. Anyone that considers themselves part of the industrial or manufacturing sectors will need to adapt or be left behind by the wave of technological innovations that is sweeping its way through the industry.

If you’ve recognized a skills gap in your own sector, you’ve already completed the first step toward creating the digital workforce European industry will need to thrive in Industry 4.0. The move toward a digital workforce is the first step. Things will continue to change and grow in the coming decade, as we move toward more innovative technologies.

Megan Ray Nichols

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