“After Coronavirus: robots for the reindustrialisation of Europe”. Fabrice Zerah’s opinion column

Opinion column by Fabrice Zerah, Managing Director of UBI Solutions published on www.lopinion.fr 20 April 2020.

The coronavirus health crisis has exposed the ambivalence of globalisation. Over the last decades we have certainly increased exchanges of goods, capital and knowledge as never before. However, without really noticing, we have also patiently organised and meticulously generalised our collective vulnerability.

Our production methods must be comprehensively redesigned. Is it not possible to see that this crisis marks the end of the international division of labour as we know it? For what is the use of continuing to specialise geographical areas excessively, in other words de-industrialising Europe and France to produce in low-cost countries, if we constantly live with the risk of a break in the supply chains?

The question of protective masks produced in enormous quantities in China, whereas we have desperate shortages in France, shows how topsy turvy things are. Should we continue to bind our economic fate, or even our sovereignty in strategic procurement, to these gigantic container ships which, by the way, have a catastrophic impact on the environment? The time has come to display much greater foresight.

We must reindustrialise, undertake to produce more locally, for the locality, that is tackle the question of production costs intelligently. If there is offshoring to other areas it is because labour there is much cheaper. And on this point we will never manage to align ourselves, but we can produce better and in other ways! How? By greater robotisation in our factories, a gauge of competitiveness.

In this field France is still much too far behind. It ranks 18th in the world, with a density of 132 robot units per 10,000 employees. This is much less than Japan, the United States, South Korea or Germany. However, the industry 4.0 and the revolution in the Internet of Things (IoT) offer huge potential for cost reduction: stock management, flexibility in industrial processes or even predictive maintenance. Not to mention the wealth of professions and skills which must be supported with a proactive approach and vision from the State.

Ethics. The developments must also concern our productive mindset. As soon as we experience exacerbation of interdependencies each person’s behaviour, because it has a ten-fold impact, must be based on scrupulous adherence to ethics. Producing in any old way, without safety, the necessary control, being contemptuous of the concept of quality, puts all the links in the chain in danger.

Every industry is concerned. As an example, the food industry which could be in the front line when faced with the increase in health crises. And here too connected objects and artificial intelligence are extremely useful as they allow complete traceability from the meadow or the stable to the consumer’s plate, going through all the distribution stages.

Let us hope that 2020 will see the start of great change.