What about the Messy Humans that Make up Industry 4.0?

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The gleaming promises of Industry 4.0 paint a utopian picture: robots taking over the drudgery, AI optimizing workflows, and 3D printers churning out bespoke solutions at our fingertips. It’s a future where everyone, including workers, benefits from a tech-driven wonderland. Nevertheless, as with every industry, even in the glittering landscape of digital manufacturing, the human factor remains stubbornly, disturbingly human.


Images courtesy of Dall-e

Once envisioned as a democratizing force, industrial additive manufacturing (AM) was supposed to relieve stress and strain on the human operator. Gone, we were told, would be the days of grueling manual labor, replaced by a new breed of skilled technicians, collaborating with intelligent machines to unlock boundless possibilities. Yet, beneath the veneer of sleek automation, a troubling reality lurks.

Even I believed this, until I came to the crushing realization: technology is just a tool, and even the most sophisticated tool can’t mend a broken moral compass. This truth dawned on me when my dream workshop morphed into a battleground, not against deadlines or technical hurdles, but against the very person entrusted to guide me: my boss.

His actions spoke volumes. My meticulously printed items, testaments to countless sleepless nights, and not to mention lots of money in material, met their end under his careless foot. I had brought in many personal items to personalize my workspace, as one does at a new job. Several months in, I had come in one day to see that my parts were broken, on the floor, and even missing. When confronted about it, my boss told me “You’re just another checkbox in my day,” before giving me his form of advice: “If you don’t want it broken or taken, don’t bring it to work.” He then promptly ended the meeting. Never offering any solutions or helping. He simply told me it was my fault and then ignored my plea for help. It would be another month before that same boss handed me a box with my parts in it, the very same parts that had gone missing.


Image of broken 3d prints

After confronting him, unreasonable tasks and duties rained down, each one a thinly veiled attempt to demoralize and break my spirit. Through it all, there was a deafening silence as my boss prevented me from getting a glance of our new facility while other coworkers went to see it.

The final straw for me was when I was ignored outright. My boss literally pretended that I didn’t exist for a couple days. The straw that ultimately broke me there, was another employee at an equal level to my manager had texted me to say that my boss was bragging to him about how he “was purposely ignoring Orville” to get me to quit. Apparently, this method works well for him because he had done it in the past to many other employees. That same coworker of mine also quit after the same mistreatment my boss had bragged to him about leveled it against him, too.

My story, unfortunately, is not unique. The shadows of Industry 4.0 stretch far beyond me and my previous workshops walls. From coworkers who have gone home crying to so many others that I don’t even know. 3DPrint.com has documented numerous cases of disgruntled workers, including those who have faced outright discrimination due to gender and other social identities. The paradox is stark: technology, designed to make our lives easier, is underscoring the very human flaws that have plagued workplaces for decades.

So, what is the answer? Can we truly build a utopia on a foundation of flawed individuals? Perhaps the solution lies not in replacing humans with machines, but in using technology to empower us to be better versions of ourselves. Imagine collaborative AI tools that foster empathy and understanding, algorithms that prioritize fairness and transparency, and 3D printers that not only build objects, but bridges between people.

The future of work, with all its dazzling technological potential, still hinges on a fundamental truth: technology doesn’t solve human problems, it merely amplifies them. It’s up to us, the flawed, complex beings wielding these powerful tools, to choose whether we build a future where technology amplifies our toxicity, or one where it elevates our humanity. The choice, ultimately, lies not in the whirring hum of code and mechanics, but in ourselves.

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