With France’s retirement age rising, automation is key to preserving know-how and preventing worn-out workers

A new pension reform will raise the retirement age in France from 62 to 64, meaning that the manufacturing industry must do more to retain senior workers and improve the working environment.

With France’s retirement age rising, automation is key to preserving know-how and preventing worn-out workers
With France’s retirement age rising, automation is key to preserving know-how and preventing worn-out workers

France is the world's seventh-largest economy. The industrial sector is vital contributing nearly 17% of GDP. Manufacturing plays a key role in creating jobs and driving growth.

But, as for many other countries, trouble lies ahead. The French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies emphasizes that 67% of business leaders report difficulties in recruiting. The situation is particularly tense in the food processing and electrical equipment sectors, but also affects specific professions such as molders, polishers and welders. According to the Randstad recruitment agency, some 4,500 manufacturing and production positions are currently vacant in France.

The reason is simple: there are fewer workers to fill the positions as the pool of working-age people in France has shrunk by 755,000 people in the last 10 years according to the UN population prospects. Looking at the workforce population in 2043, France’s working-age population is expected to decrease by 1.8 million.

In addition to this, industrial jobs have been seen as unattractive. Musculoskeletal problems sometimes lead to early exclusion of seniors from the labor market, sometimes as young as 45. This has serious human consequences for each individual, and at the same time companies are losing out on the experience and know-how of skilled senior workers. As manufacturers are finding it increasingly difficult to compensate by hiring young people, it also becomes it harder to pass on skills between generations.

Industry 5.0 technologies to support the employment of seniors

To address this issue, companies need to improve the working conditions of their employees, especially the older ones who hold key know-how for their trade. This is where robots come in.

The exoskeleton or the personal assistance robot - usually worn by a person to complement or increase his or her physical ability - are examples. But the most appropriate rising technology is certainly cobots (collaborative robots) which can take over the most tedious and repetitive tasks – for example palletizing, screw driving and essentially all manufacturing tasks requiring heavy lifts and tiring and demanding positions.

By relieving workers of these dangerous and – over time – sometimes debilitating tasks, it is possible to maintain the older and more experienced employees in post. This is often critical for businesses, as these workers master the essence and the process of the company and are at the heart of the production. This makes them capable of defining the most appropriate strategies to improve productivity and quality.

However, keeping these key employees in the workplace for longer is not the only solution: the next generation must also be attracted to the available jobs. For manufacturers, improving working conditions by adding technological solutions is becoming an element of efficiency, but also of attractiveness when it comes to recruiting.

With France’s retirement age rising, automation is key to preserving know-how and preventing worn-out workers

Companies are looking toward automation

As France looks to prepare for Industry 5.0, automation plays a rapidly increasing role, especially in industries such as chemical, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and automotive.

Automation is one of the biggest trends in French manufacturing, with a growing number of companies investing in the technology. This correlates with a survey by Bpifrance Le Lab, in which 70% of French manufactures say that modernizing their production is “an important goal, or indeed a priority.” The journey towards increased use of automation is also one which is backed by the government

But, whether economic or societal, the stakes are high for the industrial sector, even though France remains eighth place worldwide in terms of the number of robots deployed, according to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). Will the France 2030 Plan, which was launched in 2021 and provides 800 million euros for industrial robotization, change the situation?

Government supports investments in working conditions

Until 2020 any industrial SME buying a robot could benefit from a tax exemption equivalent to 40% of the value of the investment. But besides the 2030-plan, there are also other, sometimes lesser-known measures: for example, the regional social security offices offer, among other things, Prevention Grants to smaller companies to help them implement actions that reduce workers’ exposure to frequent and significant risks - back pain, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), exposure to dangerous chemicals, etc.

This support from governmental institutions is quite unique and incentivizes companies to automate. And investment is highly needed. While 79% of recognized occupational illnesses in the metal industry are related to MSDs, companies' investment in new technologies are a major avenue for improving the quality of life at work. With the postponement of the legal retirement age, the challenge is even more crucial: to increase the low employment rate of people over 50 and allow them to work in good health, while ensuring the profitability and sustainability of the companies that employ them.

UR10e cobots used in plasmacutting and MIG welding applications at Carriere Industrial Supply (CIS) in Sudbury, Canada
UR10e cobots used in plasmacutting and MIG welding applications at Carriere Industrial Supply (CIS) in Sudbury, Canada

Case example

BWIndustrie is a company from Sarrebourg in Grand Est in France specialized in industrial degreasing and machining of mechanical parts. For the past eight years, the company has used Universal Robots’ cobots to improve several of its manufacturing processes. Four robotic arms from Universal Robots (one UR5, two UR10 and one model of the new UR16e) are deployed on production lines. The cobots handle tasks such as loading and unloading of CNC lathes, quality control of metallic tubes and deburring of metal parts ranging from 4 to 14 kg.

Using cobots from Universal Robots has enabled BWIndustrie to maintain competitiveness and increase its workforce by 50% and revenues by 70%. The company has also been able to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among employees, ensuring a healthier working environment. It was also the first company in the world to deploy the UR16e.

BW Industrie case story video
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