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11 April 2022

Industry 4.0: How to ensure the competitiveness of smart factories in France?

What do you know about Industry 4.0 ? This term is used to describe the fourth great industrial revolution, characterized by the new production methods used in factories. Indeed, to optimize their production lines, these "factories of the future" rely on artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, 3D printing or cloud computing. All these technologies are evolving at the speed of light and must be mastered by any company wishing to be competitive.

Despite its cutting-edge technological sectors, France is now suffering from the deindustrialisation that began 40 years ago.

A strong reindustrialization challenge for smart factories 

While the gap in France's trade balance has been widening since the early 2000s, it seems that the Covid crisis, and more recently, the war in Ukraine, have suddenly raised awareness of the need for reindustrialization. The figures speak for themselves: the production of goods represented 23% of French GDP in the 1980s. Today, it represents only 13.5% according to France Industrie.

French sectors at the forefront of 4.0 technology

Certain high-tech sectors contribute to France's international reputation. These include the luxury goods industry (where France is the world leader), the automotive industry (2nd in Europe), the aerospace industry (2nd largest exporter in the world) and the pharmaceutical industry. On a European level, France is even the country that attracts the most foreign investors.

However, if we detach ourselves from these good students of French industry, we must admit that the production of goods on the territory has been constantly falling for 40 years. Private companies have turned to a competitiveness based on costs rather than on the value produced.

While this strategy has allowed France to turn to a service economy, recent events highlight the need for a state to have its own resources.

The pandemic and the war in Ukraine underline the crucial need to reindustrialise the country

The Covid crisis highlights an obvious point: a country that depends on others is, by nature, a fragile country. More recently, the war in Ukraine has added insult to injury: while Russia supplies nearly 18% of the world's gas, soaring energy prices are penalizing French companies, especially in the aeronautics and agri-food industries.

These unfortunate events have kicked off a new era, and this is particularly true in this presidential campaign period. "We must reindustrialise the country". This is the watchword of all our candidates.

The problem is that reindustrialisation will not happen overnight. And above all, one of the key factors for success must not be overlooked: making industrial jobs more attractive.

Making employee training a top priority to meet the challenges of Industry 4.0

The growing complexity of industrial technologies goes hand in hand with the increasingly high requirements in terms of the level of qualification of employees. Despite the number of vacancies in the industrial sector, companies are having difficulty recruiting.

A shortage of skills on the territory

It is no longer a secret: in France, the lack of skills is flagrant. According to the Banque de France, nearly 40% of business leaders are having difficulty recruiting.

The reason? The lack of interest in technical training in favour of service professions. According to Éric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation,[the educational system has a lot to do with this]: " The national educational system should realize that it has a duty to guide people towards the fields that need them most.

Skills shortage in French factories
Skills shortage in the industry

But that is not all. This skills shortage is also strongly linked to the fact that the industry is based on increasingly advanced technologies, thus requiring advanced scientific and mathematical knowledge.

For example, the most sought-after skills include artificial intelligence, software development and digital cloud. More traditional manufacturing skills (machining, assembly, quality management, process engineering, etc.) are also suffering from a shortage of candidates.

As a result, there is an urgent need to rethink the training system completely. Until now, the transmission of knowledge has focused on traditional know-how, to the detriment of skills related to digital tools.

How is it possible to ensure the competitiveness of factories in this context?

Skills management in response to the competitiveness challenges of Industry 4.0

Maintaining the competitiveness of factories 4.0 relies above all on the employees who work there. This is why it is essential to make industrial jobs more attractive, in particular by re-evaluating salaries and allowing operators to undergo continuous training.

Internally, the SWP (strategic workforce planning) plays an essential role. What is at stake? That each company is able to map its skills precisely, in order to anticipate training and recruitment needs. Indeed, the evolution of technologies used in factories requires employees to be versatile, especially when dealing with increasingly sophisticated machines.

However, many industry players struggle to manage the different skills of their teams effectively. In fact, skills management is most often done via Excel spreadsheets that are difficult to update. It is estimated that 80% of operators do not have computers at their disposal. No wonder that productivity gains are a real headache for managers: the way to manage teams has been the same since the 90s.

The need for digitalization is therefore becoming more and more critical in order to meet the requirements of tomorrow's industry. On the one hand, factories have an interest in training their employees to the new technological tools. On the other hand, they need to equip themselves with modern solutions to gain in productivity. Whatever the case, the secret of the competitiveness of the factories of the future lies in one word: people.

In summary

In the era of Factory 4.0, France's industrial reconquest is necessary to guarantee the country's sovereignty. Reindustrialization will not happen overnight, and requires real work to make industrial jobs more attractive. National education has an important role to play in highlighting the training courses that lead to these jobs. Companies have an equally important role to play in this reindustrialization process. It is up to them to implement strategies to attract and retain talent. In particular, this means increasing salaries, improving internal skills management and continuing training, which guarantees the employability of operators.

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