Forbes: Human-Technology Symbiosis in Manufacturing: Changing the Discussion About Automation and Workforce

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Part 2 in a two-part series exploring the less tangible benefits of Industry 4.0.

Will technology help or replace workers?

The debate within manufacturing about whether technology will completely replace people is interesting, but it’s the wrong debate to be having. Technology is changing the workforce, it’s a fact, and it has eliminated low-skilled manufacturing jobs in the past; but it’s not as black-and-white as most arguments suggest.

Rather, the discussion should be about the concept of human-machine (or man-computer) symbiosis, the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and technology, and how machines and software can intelligently and physically increase the productivity of the systems to be more than that of human or machine alone.

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Forbes: How Industry 4.0 Helps Manufacturers Solve Workforce Challenges

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Part 1 in a two-part series exploring the less tangible benefits of Industry 4.0.

Stuck between a soon-to-be retired workforce and a cohort of young engineers and operators with comparatively less experience, manufacturers are in a bind. They have job openings, but can’t find qualified people to fill them.

While the general public believes that all of the manufacturing jobs are going away, unemployment figures tell a different story. Since 2011, manufacturing unemployment has been lower than overall unemployment, sometimes by wide margins.

Exacerbating the issue is the skills gap, which means the jobs that employers need filled require skills that most of the unemployment pool doesn’t have. Manufacturers need highly skilled engineers and machine operators, but often times it’s those without this required skill set that are looking for work.

The result is that almost every factory I visit has open engineering positions and is struggling to run their business with a workforce that’s smaller than ideal.

One of the solutions to this conundrum is technology.

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3 Ways IIoT Helps Attract and Retain Workers

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“The challenge for manufacturers in the U.S. isn’t foreign manufacturing; it’s the high school guidance counselor,” Brian Fortney, global business manager for Rockwell Automation, told Design News. They don’t understand that manufacturing is high tech. The plants are not dark and dangerous.”

Yes, the workforce skills gap still plagues manufacturing. In fact, 71 percent of manufacturers responding to The Future of the Manufacturing Workforcesurvey by Manpower say “insufficient manufacturing skills is increasing in severity now and will continue to get worse over the next several years.”

For manufacturers, the skills challenge often comes down to an image problem. On the one hand, many people still view manufacturing as “dark and dangerous.” Another common misperception is that automation or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are replacing workers. In reality, highly automated, smart operations help manufacturers empower their current workforce and attract top talent.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key ways IIoT empowers the workforce, while helping manufacturers close the skills gap.

Developing the Next Generation of ‘Problem Solvers’

In a previous post, we discussed the benefits of real-time production performance tracking. Sensor-connected devices provide workers with more information at their fingertips. The modern workforce is becoming tech savvy and expects to have instant access to critical information, whether it’s displayed on a workstation monitor or via mobile devices. They also want more fulfilling jobs that provide opportunities to create value.

IIoT frees your workers to focus on problem-solving activities rather than repetitive, sometimes dangerous tasks. These connected workers have “easy access to smart operating procedures, and both generic and asset-specific instructions and checklists. Carrying hundreds of pages of unwieldy manuals prove a thing of the past,” according to an Accenture report. 

 

Breaking Down Productivity Barriers

Of course, all manufacturers want their workers to be more productive. Unfortunately, data often exists in silos, which means your workers don’t have access to critical information they need to increase productivity. It also means workers are expending more energy on mundane, physically demanding tasks.

Frustration mounts when workers must stop the line or their machine to troubleshoot a maintenance or quality issue. IIoT allows for true predictive maintenance. In an IIoT environment, workers often receive real-time condition-monitoring alerts, such as vibration data, temperature fluctuations and energy consumption. This results in less downtime and improved employee morale. They also may receive real-time analytics that show variations in product quality or yields.

A Single Source of Truth

When data exists in silos, workers in separate departments may view or interpret data differently. This creates frustration, disagreements about the data integrity and oftentimes low employee morale. Consistency across your enterprise is essential to ensure everyone is working in concert to achieve a common goal. A cloud-based analytics platform can help that’s accessible anywhere, from any device helps break down data silos.  The system takes data inputs, processes the information and provides feedback. The data that is collected gets uploaded to the cloud and is safely stored so that it can be accessed by any Internet-connected device.

 

Other Things to Consider …

The workforce shortage isn’t going to remedy itself. IIoT is becoming a critical component to addressing current and future workforce challenges. Consider IIoT solutions that are accessible to an unlimited number of users. This reduces information siloing and helps you build a more empowered, collaborative team of problem solvers. Also, if you’re an early adopter, look for out-of-the-box solutions that don’t require lengthy, complex commissioning times, which will only complicate your workforce challenges.

Will Smart Factories Replace Humans? No.

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It is a common belief that the artificial intelligence (AI) revolution will be detrimental to the job market and lead to significant losses in jobs. In fact, some even believe that AI will completely outpace humans in all areas of productivity, which would result in a fully automated workforce.

It is true that people will lose jobs as automation increases. We have seen companies like McDonald’s integrate digital kiosks to replace cashiers, and can imagine how self-driving vehicles will disrupt their industry, but the question for us is if smart factories will replace humans. The answer is no for 3 reasons: 1) Technological limitations, 2) Worker augmentation, and 3) Type of labor affected.

Narrow vs. General AI

The context that an AI system operates in is significantly more narrow than what people realize. The form of AI that is implemented in the products and services that we use today can be referred to as “narrow AI.” Narrow AI focuses on single functions and domains and is completely non-sentient.

When the average individual thinks of AI, they sometimes inflate their view based on the movies, tv shows, and articles they engage with. The type of AI that we see in movies is called general AI — a self-aware, AI system that can make general decisions about anything. This form of AI is only theoretical, at this moment, and if it is possible, we are still decades away from that reality.

One of the best uses for IIoT in a manufacturing plant is for the real-time performance tracking capabilities. When a factory connects their machines to an IIoT platform, the machines will start reporting data for how they are operating. The platform will provide a view that shows every input and corresponding output for all of the machines that are in operation.

Worker Augmentation

It is clear, at least for the next couple of decades, that robots and AI systems will not fully replace humans, but it still remains unclear how humans and machines can work together. In manufacturing, and specifically in a smart factory, there will always be the need for humans to work along with the autonomous systems in place.

 

There is even evidence that when a factory fully automates their operations, the number of employees that they had stayed the same or went up. This was evident for Siemens’ Amberg Electronics Plant in Germany where their productivity went up over 1000% by integrating a smart factory, all while maintaining 1200 employees throughout the process. This is also the trend with countries who are leading the way in smart factories. There is no evidence that with more automation in factories comes a trend of less employment in the workforce.

A Push For Higher Skilled Workers

There is one more reason why we will always have humans in the smart factory, and this has to do with the type of work that is performed in a factory. At this point, we have demonstrated why it is more realistic that humans will work alongside with robots and AI, but we know that it is still possible for people to be replaced through automation. So then, why can you not replace employees in a smart factory? Well, the answer is that you can, but not those who are highly trained and skilled.

Automation will impact workers who do repetitive tasks that could easily be replicated by a machine. Things like customer service, driving, and food service, among others, will be the main areas where jobs may be lost. In fields where more complex decisions must be made, there will always be a need for humans to make the final resolve, and this is the case with the smart factory.

A Combination Of Factors

There are many factors that go into whether or not a specific business will replace jobs with AI and automation. With the smart factory, however, it is clear that this will not be the case. Even when there are opportunities to replace an employee with AI, factories have shown that it makes more sense to re-apply those same employees to other tasks so that they remain productive, but this also can depend on the decisions of that company themselves.

At Oden, we are clear in our stance that we will always create technology for humans no matter how advanced automation technology becomes. We also look to work with companies that value this perspective, as well. The fact that AI is narrow, will augment workers, and would mainly replace repetitive tasks, leads to the conclusion that factory workers can look forward to the rise of the smart factory.