Manufacturing in Europe – Old jobs with new tasks increasingly driven by automation

The importance of physical tasks in manufacturing is generally declining due to automation; with more intensive use of digitally controlled equipment, and the increasing importance of quality standards, resulting in a growing amount of intellectual tasks for manual industrial workers.

The New tasks in old jobs: Driver of change and implications for job quality publication from the Future of Manufacturing in Europe (FOME) project summarises 20 case studies in five manufacturing areas (car assemblers, meat processing workers, hand-packers, chemical products plant and machine operators, and inspection engineers) in Germany, Italy, Sweden and the UK.

The report brings a contextualised and detailed analysis of recent changes in the task content and nature of these occupations due to factors such as technology, market changes, policy and regulation. It also discusses the implications of these changes for task profiles, job quality and industrial relations.

Each sector studied in the research is influenced by digitalisation and automation to varying degrees depending on the specific circumstances within their respective industries, but what is clear across sectors is that manufacturing in Europe is undergoing fundamental change with increasing implications for quality of work, employment quality, workplace risks, work-life balance, industrial relations and wages.

The qualitative analysis conducted as part of this study has highlighted the importance of contextual information when it comes to understanding the impact of change
on the task content of occupations, including its drivers and implications. Combining existing quantitative data with case studies at company level has enabled a more thorough analysis of how job content, work organisation and technology use have changed.

The five analysed occupations have all been affected by significant technological, market and regulatory changes in recent years. These changes have inevitably influenced the way companies operate and work is organised, which in turn has affected job content, skills needs and quality requirements. The main findings for each manufacturing occupation are presented in the following paragraphs.

The work of car assemblers has been particularly affected by digitalisation over the last few decades. Production in the car industry is now largely based on modularisation, which allows the increasing demand for specific features or technical requirements to be better accommodated. The use of robots, sensors and automation has also radically changed the way work is organised.
In terms of task content, the number of physical tasks is declining because of new technological innovations, although manual dexterity is still important for troubleshooting or customisation. At the same time, the increasing importance of standardisation means that intellectual tasks are becoming more relevant in areas such as quality control and the use of sophisticated, digitally controlled equipment.

Altogether, although the work of car assemblers still contains a high level of routine, these developments suggest that intrinsic job quality has improved over time. This is further supported by the fact that car assemblers now tend to work in teams instead of performing individual tasks along an assembly line, boosting social interaction.

The meat processing industry is still highly labour- intensive and the adoption of robots and automation technology is far from becoming mainstream, mainly due to costs and technical challenges. This implies that meat processing workers still predominantly perform physical tasks.

At the same time, the introduction of rising quality standards – especially in relation to food safety and traceability – has also affected how the meat industry operates. Intellectual tasks certainly remain much less frequent, but increasing standardisation requires greater quality control and a higher level of monitoring.

Work is more often carried out individually and with little autonomy. In terms of job quality, it is interesting to note that meat processing workers have benefited less from the development of new technologies that reduce workplace risks than the other occupations. This is mainly due to the high costs of such technologies, which mean many companies still rely on manual labour.

In the chemical industry, many companies have invested significantly in automation and ICTs. This has led to decreasing labour intensity in production, but has improved working and safety conditions for chemical products plant and machine operators in turn (e.g. they have much less contact with dangerous substances or machinery than before).

The increase in intellectual tasks (analytical skills related to problem solving and quality management) due to the introduction of new technologies and regulations
has made the job more varied and stimulating. Some autonomy is required to handle, monitor and document all stages of the chemical production process, and while work is o en carried out independently, cooperation with other staff is also part of the job. The skills requirements of the job are becoming broader as chemical products plant and machine operators have wider areas of responsibility and need to update their ICT skills regularly in order to monitor digital production equipment.

The work of hand-packers has also been significantly affected by recent technological, market and regulatory changes, with the digitisation of logistics becoming an important driver of e iciency and quality. The use of ICT in packaging has led to a gradual shift in the tasks performed by hand-packers: being able to operate and monitor electronically controlled machines is becoming increasingly important at the expense of physical skills. Hand-packers have also been signi cantly a ected by global market changes, where the growing interdependence of markets has resulted in the increased outsourcing of packaging and logistics. This implies that although the job o en still involves simple and routine tasks, the more experienced and qualified workers now have to be able to perform complex logistical and coordination tasks, which in turn reflects higher intrinsic job quality. Indeed, there is an increasing need to have skilled workers who are able to handle ICT systems that keep track of all packing and shipment processes.

Higher standards for product quality, packaging and delivery have also influenced the work of hand-packers when it comes to product traceability, with a more widespread use of barcodes or other forms of electronic labelling technologies.

In terms of employment stability and working conditions, the occupation has experienced increasing segmentation between permanent employees strongly represented by trade unions and temporary agency workers with less contractual stability and fewer career development

Inspection engineer is a general occupation that spans various manufacturing subsectors, but has a higher educational profile and greater skills requirements than other sector-spanning roles like hand-packer. Coordinating complex value chains spanning many countries means that quality control and standardisation are particularly important within this role. The need to comply with quality standards has led to the development of more comprehensive and centralised quality control systems that encompass all of a company’s functions to avoid fragmentation. Cooperation with production workers and other departments is therefore very important for inspection engineers, who supervise production processes and are responsible for launching corrective actions in response to customer complaints.

The use of digital technologies has also had an impact on the task content of this job, removing many repetitive testing tasks and introducing more tasks requiring advanced ICT skills. Compared to the other four manufacturing jobs, inspection engineers display much more signi cant intellectual task content and a higher level of autonomy.

Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at New tasks in old jobs: Manufacturing in Europe increasingly driven by automation | Eurofound



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