Technology supporting human work in manufacturing future

There is no doubt that the factories will look much differently in the next decade than they do today. One only needs to look at what some of the premier companies are doing with Augmented Reality (AR), Robotics and the Internet of Things (IoT) Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES).  For example, Amazon and AGCO are pioneering the use of technology in supporting human work activities. As a result, they are growing a truly hybrid workforce.

So, what does this mean for the business? For starters, productivity, quality, lead times and cost will continue to improve as technology replaces or augments the work that humans used to do and more importantly are doing today. We see this happening across industry segments. For example, Drew Greenblatt, President and owner of Marlin Steel, Wire Products LLC has commented “we are big proponents of robotics. I reject the notion that robots are taking over our jobs. Robotics are displacing wasted time”. Used this way, robotics can augment your lean or continuous improvement journey by freeing up human resources to work on more value added and critical parts of the business.

Technology and automation improvements can and ultimately will continue to change the competitive landscape for many industries. Those who are unable to get by their past investments may get left behind in this new information and automation age. In addition, people requirements and resources will change. Workers will have to be re-trained to use this technology and organizations will have to look at technical resources to ensure maintenance and reliability. And so, one of the more provocative question arises; “Will robots and technology replace workers in the factory of the future?”

Christian Wolcott

“My viewpoint is no,” says Christian Wolcott Senior consultant for Optima Associates in Depere. “I see the next 50 years or so as being collaborations of technologies and human skills to design, build and deliver various hard good high-volume products. Machines are wonderful with providing consistent routine movements of heavy pieces where tight tolerances are a must, the current example being car bodies where many manufacturers rely solely on robotics to produce the components and chassis pieces that do not change dramatically from year to year. By contrast most interior part assemblies are hand assembled and installed because of the numerous changes to design and requirements for two handed installation combined with visual inspection for good fit and finish. Current expanding technology provides opportunities for understanding the advancing critical strengths of automated assembly and that of human finesse.” Wolcott believes that emerging skills enhancement technology will drive the collaboration of humans and technology. He saw a glimpse of this future in a new product technology called: Light Guide Systems. .

The potential this technology offers people everywhere is incredible. Imagine assembly guided by an augmented reality “Siri” that is built on documented standardized work where a takt time could be applied. It is realistic to think that people of low skills could easily ramp up their work to achieve “best in class” quality output very quickly and then consistently deliver that quality over time. Light Guide Systems promotes the use of its technology in several sectors of work including healthcare.

Further, I believe that future workforces are already being built on the growing consciousness of seeking virtual assistance- how many of us have turned to YouTube looking for “guidance”?  A recent PWC survey of the industrial sector projected that ten percent of all companies that digitally transform their operations, and 25 percent or more of the early adopters that do so, will achieve more that 30 percent top-line growth and at the same time reduce costs by double digits.

So, what can you do in this factory of the future age?

  • Assign someone in your organization to get educated on industry 4.0. Complete an assessment of best practices against your current technologies and quantify the potential benefit. Areas to consider include the use of digitization for product development, manufacturing and supply chain, 3D printing, Robotics, Internet of Things (IoT), machine-to-machine communication and augmented decision support systems.
  • Update your company image and brand to reflect the investment you are making in technology, automation and other advanced manufacturing platforms. Use this new brand image to attract and retain skilled labor.
  • Partner with STEM programs to get involved early and attract talent. Work with local educational leaders to adapt curriculum to address factory of the future skills.
  • Create your own internal university and/or training programs to teach key technical skills.
  • Understand the latent talent you have within your organization. Do you truly know the skills and abilities of your current workforce?

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