Atlanta — Automation and employee retention do not have to be mutually exclusive, according to Gerd Fuhrmann.
As founder of Intravis GmbH, Fuhrmann is seeing how Industry 4.0 is transforming the plastics business, in some sectors faster than others.
But the owner of the Aachen, Germany-based packaging inspection company also believes that embracing internet technology to improve operations does not, and should not, come at the expense of employees who could otherwise be replaced.
"When I'm talking to converters, the very first idea is that 'I lay off half my employees,'" he said at the recent PETnology Americas 2018 conference in Atlanta.
"I feel that is the wrong approach because you need somebody to operate even with Industry 4.0," he said.
The internet is connecting people and businesses in ways that could only be imagined not that long ago.
Machines can be monitored and adjusted remotely, allowing companies to rely on less staff to keep operations up and running.
But Fuhrmann sees value in keeping existing workers in place and using technology to instead expand operations with the same staff. This productivity improvement allows companies to save money while also protecting employment.
"You need knowledge about operations. The idea is to grow the business and keep the people. But they would need to operate more machines," he said.
He said a "sure way" toward failure is to lay off people in key positions such as quality control, for example.
"The idea is to let them work together," he said about people and technology. Handling more work with the same amount of people "is a better idea, a better approach. Those who have this approach are much more successful."
Employment attrition, over time, will allow companies to cut worker costs without layoffs, Fuhrmann said.
Industry has seen automation in different forms before, and the current industry 4.0 is more of the same.
"We have seen that laying off people in the very first moment is the wrong [approach]," he said. "In my eyes, you're most successful when you are starting the Industry 4.0 approach with the same people starting the job, taking away their fear to be laid off. And in the end, you will see a growth in your business. With the same people, you can run more lines, more output."