South African unions, government and industry need to recognise an entirely new category of worker. There used to be a relatively simple division in the workforce – blue collar workers performed manual labour, often unskilled and typically paid weekly wages, and white collar workers could be found in offices earning monthly salaries. The latter group were typically regarded as being more skilled.
Those lines have blurred with the concept of grey collar workers combining elements of traditional blue and white collar tasks and set to shift the balance of the labour force as modernisation changes the future of manufacturing.
Grey collar workers often have technical qualifications within their particular field of expertise, but may still work in an environment considered the domain of blue collar workers – they are still on the factory floor and are becoming the driving force behind modern manufacturing.
South African manufacturing operates in a global context and must respond to global innovations. The country has the opportunity to be an advanced manufacturing nation with an efficient, sustainable and growing economy providing skilled employment.
Internationally, manufacturing is moving into a new era of proficiency and South Africa must follow. Efficiency and innovation are being significantly enhanced by virtual manufacturing, or the use of computing to simulate manufacturing systems and prototype products to predict efficiency before real manufacturing occurs. Industry software, combined with resource efficiency and industrial integration, is yielding more efficient production, innovation, speed-to-market and flexibility.
Advanced manufacturing and the new grey collar work environment will see tablet computing devices replacing screwdrivers and computer skills taking the place of traditional factory floor competencies. This industrial and manufacturing renaissance promotes computerisation of traditional industries. The goal is the intelligent or smart factory characterised by adaptability, resource efficiency and ergonomics as well as the integration of customers and business partners in business and value processes.
Cyber-physical systems and the internet of things, with small connected electronic devices at every stage of the production process, is ushering in automation in nearly every field.This, ladies and gentlemen is a step towards the fourth industrial revolution. Factories already have networked machines and digitally-driven production and the emerging phase is one of self-contained systems with all devices, machines and materials equipped with sensors and communication technology.
As virtual and real worlds combine, software is now driving efficiency and customisation. Software has the ability to affect the entire industrial value chain from product design to planning and engineering; to production and services. Companies which adapt to and embrace the digital factory will have the competitive advantage.
In South Africa advanced manufacturing is recognised as vital for a balanced, sustainable economy that creates employment and boosts prosperity. South Africa’s investment in a modern manufacturing economy will be followed by jobs, skills development and growth that lead to further investments in the wider economy.
The technological and economic benefits of modern manufacturing will contribute to the country’s stability and development with industry as an engine for South Africa’s growth. However, South Africa must now do what other countries are doing – and pour political and economic resources into improving competitiveness via advanced manufacturing capabilities, upgraded infrastructure and transformed workforce skills. This is where the traditional roles of blue and white collar merge as the workforce of economic growth.
Many South African factories resemble technology museums. Yet innovation and growth are directly linked to the development and availability of skilled workers – the grey collar workers of the future. South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) recognises the country’s high cost structure makes it difficult to compete globally in low-skills manufacturing. Business recognises the tension between the need for mass job creation and efficient, automated and high-skills industry. The country needs advanced manufacturing to be competitive and to build an industrial economy creating sustainable employment. However, it is only through competitive industries based on new technologies and international best practices that South Africa will be able to build that viable manufacturing sector in the first place.
The jobs of the future have yet to be invented, but South Africa has its work cut out in a world fast escalating towards the next industrial revolution.
South Africa’s single largest strategic challenge for advanced manufacturing is the availability of skilled people – the country is not educating nearly sufficient skilled apprentices, engineering technicians or engineering graduates.
Skills development reduces unemployment. Developing a modern manufacturing sector solves both the skills and unemployment challenge as automation and mechanisation enables grey collar workers to increase their skills and employment opportunities.