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The future of the factory

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06/11/2020

We will be discussing these issues in more detail in a webinar on 12 November 2020 at 12pm – join us by signing up here.

Investing in technology, automating processes and digitalisation were already high on the agenda for businesses in the manufacturing sector.  The coronavirus pandemic and uncertainties associated with Brexit have only added to the case for accelerated investment, particularly given the need for robust disaster recovery solutions – such as having the capacity to scale up or down production on short notice and the ability to carry out more roles remotely.

Pre-pandemic, we visited the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre’s “Factory 2050”, to gain an understanding of how technology is being used by businesses to streamline processes and increase production.  The AMRC enables businesses to hire a space in their facility and works with them to, for example, develop piece of smart-machinery.  The business and its employees therefore gain the internal working knowledge of that machine and can operate and programme it without relying on third party suppliers.

Some manufacturers are already using augmented reality to carry out roles which many only ever thought could be done in person.  For example, Nestle recently announced it had developed remote assistance tools to connect with its facilities around the globe (given the restrictions on travel as a result of the pandemic).  Such augmented reality can be used to undertake projects such as redesigning the factory line or even completing maintenance work.

While technology can lead to greater capacity, better monitoring and data collection, and less room for error, there are a variety of legal issues which need to be considered in relation to the development, implementation and operation of such technology.

How will the increasing use of technology impact the workforce?

The first thing people often question is whether robots will eventually replace people on the production line entirely – resulting in mass redundancies and high unemployment rates.  A robot does not need the national minimum wage, nor does it need rest breaks.  However, it seems more likely that what will actually be needed is a more flexible and skilled workforce.

Automating processes can alleviate the problems of ageing workforces, reduce the amount of manual labour required and solve the issue of people with the knowledge of a particular manual process moving on.  However, there is currently a shortage of people who have the specific skills and experience needed to develop, operate and analyse technology.  This may therefore mean employers need to think carefully about recruitment strategies, training and apprenticeships.

Brexit will bring more challenges in this regard, with the pool of labour from which UK businesses can recruit (who are free from immigration restrictions) being significantly reduced from 1 January 2021.  As part of its policy paper on the new skills based immigration system, the government placed a huge emphasis on investment in technology and automation to solve potential issues such as a shortage of staff to man the production line.

There are of course many other issues to consider, such as how machines are used to monitor the performance of employees and whose fault it is if something goes wrong, meaning employers may need to re-think disciplinary and performance management practices.  The impact of technology on the workforce therefore looks set to be a fast developing area of law.

Who owns the intellectual property?

The first aspect to consider when looking at this issue is whether you will be acquiring existing technology or developing your own. The pace of technological advance is rapid and many companies are developing machines, robotics and AI to enable business to increase levels of automation. If you intend to acquire your technology from a third party then you need to ensure that you have the requisite IP rights to support that procurement of new technology.

However, the majority of businesses will need to tailor the implementation of this technology to suit their own needs and processes. This will most likely involve working with third parties and it is vital to ensure that there is a clear contractual understanding of who owns any intellectual property arising from the development of new processes. This is an important part of the procurement process and something to be mindful of.

In addition, once the technology has been implemented and looking to the future, it is important to consider what tasks will be carried out by non-humans. Intellectual property law frequently plays catch up with technology and the issue of owning any intellectual property arising from non-humans is being carefully considered by the IP community.

The future is perhaps not as far away as you might think and therefore, it is important to understand the current position.

 

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