‘This is not sci-fi. This is our everyday.’

There’s something big occurring around Bydgoszcz and other emerging cities in Poland, we learn at the ‘Emerging Cities & 4IR’ conference. In fact, an entire revolution: the 4th Industrial Revolution.

First up was Honorata, probably the best accounts-receivable employee in Poland. She can process 2000 invoices nearly three times faster than any other employee, and she never takes sick leave or vacations and delivers ROI to her employer within a month. She also happens to be a robot (or digital employee) tailor-made by the Gdańsk-based tech company PIRXON, which bills itself as Poland’s first robot job agency. Honorata was followed by MM’s team of warehouse robots, Meelogic’s autonomous driving software, HTG’s electric-heated glass and Cybercom’s smart helmet for construction workers. 

Where were we? San Francisco, Tokyo, Berlin? Bydgoszcz, of course, a city of c. 350,000 residents located three hours north-west of Warsaw. Prof. Dariusz Mikołajewski from Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz summed it up best: “This is not sci-fi. This is our everyday.” 

For centuries Bydgoszcz has been known as the Little Venice of Poland with its picturesque canals and cultural landmarks. But it’s now making a new name for itself as a tech, logistics and BPO/SSC hub punching well-above its weight, servicing multinationals and markets all around the world. 

At the ‘Emerging Cities & 4IR’ conference hosted by Poland Today, we were told that the city of Bydgoszcz had hitched a ride on Industry 4.0 (4IR) to ensure its survival by fighting against the demographic/labour headwinds that so many other mid-sized cities in Poland are now facing. Advances in connectivity and the emergence of disruptive technologies, however, have levelled the playing field for SMEs and cities like Bydgoszcz, allowing them to bypass the traditional barriers (geography, capital, etc) to enjoy a direct connection with investors and markets all around the world – and compete with bigger players in the process.

But what exactly is Industry 4.0? And what about all the other buzzwords like the Internet of Things, AI, Business Process Automation (BPA) and Digital Transformation? Alec McCullie, Head of IoT & Industry 4.0 at Atos (UK), flew in to Bydgoszcz from London to help answer these questions and unpack what can be – let’s face it – a daunting topic for the uninitiated. 

“I don’t really see Industry 4.0 as a thing,” he said. “It’s an idea, a concept, a convergence of many different types of technology that really has one goal – and that’s to help organisations accelerate and become more efficient.” Due to its sheer size and complexity, he said that it’s sometimes best to bring it back to basics. “It’s not actually about technology,” he said. “It’s really fundamentally about two things: better processes and better decisions.” 

This sentiment was shared by Edyta Wiwatowska, President of the Bydgoszcz Regional Development Agency. “We had the first industrial revolution with the steam engine, the second with mass production, the third on the back of the internet, and now the fourth,” she said. “Nothing has changed, really. We just have different tools.”

McCullie emphasised that it’s not a matter of just plugging in technology. A tool is useless without a purpose and a way to measure its efficacy. He said companies needed to identify the problem that the technology is supposed to solve in the first place. 

“What are you trying to do with your digital transformation programme? Reduce costs or be more competitive?” he said. “And then we look internally and ask what we already have that can help address this challenge. Do we have the data that we need to make this decision or process better, but we just don’t have the right ideas? Or we don’t know where [the solution] is and must go through an incredibly manual process just to get it … Once we know what we can do internally and what we’re trying to achieve, then it’s just a question of choosing the right technology to fit that model.”

This provided the cue for the data scientists and AI experts to explain just how the technology can be implemented. “We’re sitting on such a mass of data that we don’t know what to do with it all. We call this the data swamp,” said Tomasz Deptuła, who heads the local site of deepsense.ai, a tech company providing AI-powered solutions. “As data scientists, we use AI to sift through the data to find the needle in the haystack, which is valuable for an organisation. Without AI, this needle would either be missed or take a lot of manual labour to uncover.”

McCullie said that a paradigm shift in the value chain is also occurring around Industry 4.0 with the traditional linear model being fashioned into a circle. 

“In the future, one of the new business models that’s been created through Industry 4.0 is this idea of servitization,” he said. “So instead of a company selling you a product, they sell you a service that will be maintained by the company over the product’s lifecycle.” A classic example is the automotive industry. He said that his research with KPMG showed the value of the support services around the car (parts, mechanics, leasing, insurance, etc) is worth just as much as the value of the product itself. And now auto companies are benefiting from both upstream value (the production of the car) and downstream (services over a 10-year lifecycle). 

He also made note of the process of “decoupling the manufacturing function from the factory”. For example, the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry has developed the concept of a Factory in a Box (FIAB), where mini, ready-made automated factories are shipped in containers to be installed in any location around the world. 

Alec McCullie, Head of IoT & Industry 4.0, Atos (UK)

Elwira Justyna Pyk, Manager of HR Robotics at the Global Robotics Centre at Kozminski University, took the ongoing theme of ‘back to basics’ one step further and brought the focus down to a human level. She argued that humans should be put front and centre during the design process of AI, BPA and robotics. Just like any tool, the tech should be designed for humans to maximise their own productivity, job satisfaction, creativity and indeed, the time dedicated to designing the next piece of tech.

On another panel, Paweł Lulewicz, VP of the Pomeranian Special Economic Zone, seemed to agree. He said that there are already 20,000 robots in operation around Poland (42 robots per 20,000 people) and this figure is set to grow exponentially, which means that the country will also require a commensurate increase in operators. Instead of assigning engineers the task, he argued, factory workers should be upskilled to operate the robots. This would allow the engineers to focus on what they’re best at – and that’s R&D. 

Ewa Stelmasiak, founder of The Wellness Institute and the term ‘Wellbeing 4.0’, continued in this vein in her presentation that looked at both the potential synergies and conflicts between humans and the new disruptive technology. 

She reminded the audience that change is already upon us and the sooner we realise and accept this, the sooner we can begin to develop mental habits to adapt to and fully exploit the tech, both in the interests of employers and employees. “In the Industry 4.0 era, it’s nice to be a human,” she said. “Now we can focus on creativity and other human traits that cannot be replicated by machines.”

Konrad Dobrzyniecki, Senior Project Manager and 5G expert at Orange Polska, brought the audience up to speed about the current progress of the 5G rollout in Poland and the urgency behind it. “Our projections show that without 5G, 20% of the current network will be clogged up based on the ever-increasing generation of data. Video alone already accounts for nearly 90% of bandwidth.”  

He pointed out that factories and warehouses – especially those with automated operations – stand to benefit as 5G is a faster and more reliable standard than 4G when responding to heavy network loading, not to mention more secure than WIFI. For this very reason, he said that the German government had reserved certain frequency bands in its national auction for the secure use of specific industries and government departments.   

Along with the burgeoning telemedicine industry, he said that 5G is enabling the advancement of automated driving technology, whose safety will be dependent on the ability of cars and road sensors to communicate with each other in an efficient and reliable manner. Otherwise, lives may be at stake.

In a roundtable session, the idea of connectivity was further explored but in its human form: that is, interrelations between companies, industries and cities. The big question was whether the digital infrastructure could lead to synergies and cooperation between various stakeholders? Or rather, does the implementation and success of the digital infrastructure rely on collaboration?

Dobrzyniecki of Orange Polska said that cooperation was already occurring in his field. The four operators in Poland and the government have come together to plan the deployment of base stations and other hardware to prevent overlap, signal interference and achieve cost savings in the process.

Michał Kornacki, Team Leader of Investor Service at Bydgoszcz Regional Development Agency, said that while competition for investment and talent is robust, Polish cities do collaborate by sharing data, such as traffic data and real estate metrics. 

There was also scope for collaborating on R&D projects to share costs, making the implementation of expensive smart city technology a far more feasible prospect for emerging cities. 

A second group discussed the future of the workforce during the breakout session and Artur Rogosz, Business Manager, FlexHR said that despite living in this tech-age, humans are becoming irreplaceable because they are valuable assets to a company so there’s an increasing focus on employees’ well-being. 

In addition, there’s an enormous talent gap in Poland’s IT sector, said Agnieszka Porebska, Head of Communications, Talent Alpha Inc, but thanks to today’s ‘human cloud’, people can work from anywhere. This gives smaller cities a chance to attract talent because specialists no longer have to live in big cities to work for global companies which may be headquartered elsewhere.  

But back to Elwira Justyna Pyk. She urged emerging cities to take a (banana) leaf out of Costa Rica’s book when negotiating a path through Industry 4.0: “Don’t just import the technology of today but invest in people to create and maximise the technology of the future.”

Her call to action echoed the age-old proverb: Give an entrepreneur a robot and power a business for a life-cycle. Teach entrepreneurs robotics and power an economy for a lifetime. 

December 29, 2019
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Written by: William Burke