Factories without employees, the explosive scenario of reindustrialization

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Factories without employees, the explosive scenario of reindustrialization

Published on December 11, 2023 at 1:30 p.m.

With the development of industry 4.0 and artificial intelligence, will we one day see companies using “dark plants”, that is to say factories that do not employ employees? Far from being a science fiction scenario, this avenue is already being studied with the greatest discretion in France to avoid relocations. A debate which promises to be explosive for the government, but also for all the companies which have made Toyotism the basis of their operation.

For Eric Kirstetter, associate consultant at Roland Berger, France, with its salary costs, cannot avoid this reflection. “In France, the gross cost of an hour of work for a worker is 35 euros,” he explains. The figure is 23 euros in Spain, 15 euros in Romania and only 4 euros in Morocco. It is extremely difficult to find solutions to bridge this gap in a position which, in the automobile industry for example, represents 25% of the cost price.

Change of approach

In recent months, the government has sometimes removed the obstacle by granting considerable subsidies to certain emblematic projects, such as 1.5 billion euros granted to the Taiwanese Prologium to set up its battery gigafactory in Dunkirk, or the 2.9 billion won by STMicroelectronics in Isère. But this budgetary voluntarism has its limits. Eric Kirstetter therefore believes that we must “think differently about reindustrialization, that is to say, consider factories without employees, or in any case as few as possible”.

To achieve this, the technical and technological tools are already on the table, he says. Certain factories, such as those of automobile manufacturers, which are already highly automated, are not suitable for this. The possibilities are greater with their equipment manufacturers, for example. In a current project, “we have the ambition to reach 65% productivity in 5 years,” he specifies.

The positions most threatened are those of production operators. With the proliferation of sensors, machines are now capable of detecting dangers themselves and making adjustments. Companies are even less hesitant to take the plunge if the cost is not prohibitive.

AI takes over

This development has until now been hampered by the visual detection of fine defects, which required the human eye. But with advances in artificial intelligence, a camera can very quickly accumulate the expertise of a seasoned employee. AI is therefore called upon to take over control tasks, an evolution already largely underway.

The foremen, responsible for managing an entire production line, seem a little more protected. Their position is generally the last retained, explains Eric Kirstetter. They manage all the tasks that would be too costly to automate. The increase in the level of robustness of machines, as well as the development of predictive maintenance, is already helping to reduce the number of positions.

Significant efforts are also underway in certain sectors to reduce logistics-related workforce. The packaging of delivered parts is reduced to a minimum and the automation of “picking” with reprogrammable robots which bring the parts along the lines is about to become commonplace.

Then there remain the support functions. But in companies that practice Toyotism, the transfer to these positions constitutes an opportunity that motivates workers. Seeking to eliminate them amounts to trampling on the internal social contract, which many companies refuse to consider.

Others have taken the plunge. A French equipment manufacturer, reports an automotive expert, already has a site operating on this model in Europe, and is considering converting others. Others assess potential productivity gains.

“Building a competitive advantage for France”

“By playing on all the sliders, we can have a factory with zero operators, a few adjusters, reduced logistics costs and a maintenance team which will be the heart of the factory,” argues Eric Kirstetter. This operation is the future of factories. France can gain a competitive advantage by developing its know-how in this area.”

Not sure that the government is ready to open a public debate on the subject. Certainly, “this change would make it possible to avoid factory closures, or even to relocate strategic industries,” says the consultant. But the social cost would be enormous, even if spread over several years. In recent months, plans to set up factories in Tarn or Ardèche have aroused hostility from certain local residents, even though they were supposed to create jobs. What if locals couldn’t even hope to find a job there?

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Carlos Hall

expert in Xbox Microsoft gaming. With a deep passion for gaming, I have accumulated over 30 years of experience across a wide range of genres. From first-person shooters to role-playing games, I've immersed myself in the virtual worlds and mastered the art of gaming. Alongside my gaming expertise, I have a strong professional background, having worked as a Googler and previously at OutSystems. I hold an MBA and have authored technology-related content since 2001. My goal is to share my knowledge and insights to help others make the most of their gaming experiences and navigate the ever-evolving world of technology.