The Age of the Digitally Enhanced Human Workforce

The Age of the Digitally Enhanced Human Workforce

In many industrial applications, the battle between man and machine is long ago over. Today, robots and heavy automation assets are performing tasks quicker, cheaper, safer, and to a better standard than their human counterparts in manufacturing plants around the world. Nevertheless, there remain those industrial sectors during which the skilled operator has (thus far) resisted the increase of the machines; low volume, premium quality, and highly customizable products still are assembled using largely manual processes in areas like aerospace and luxury automotive manufacturing, but could that be close to change? 

The drivers for not automating in these sectors are clear, whilst automation is technically viable for several manufacturing processes, the high setup costs balanced against a comparatively short (or unknown) production run encourage a low-risk ROI based approach to investment. Additionally, in cases of high product variability, it's going to be true that found out times and tooling changeovers render the automated option cumbersome and slow as compared to a talented and highly flexible operator. 

However, the raft of the latest technologies that have arrived with the fourth technological revolution (Industry 4.0) means the selection of manual vs automation is not any longer a binary one. Through technology, it's now possible to bring back bear through the hands of an operator many of the characteristics to which we've always looked to automation, but at a fraction of the value. 

Today, robots and heavy automation assets are performing tasks quicker, cheaper, safer, and to a higher standard than their human counterparts in manufacturing plants around the world.

Today, robots and heavy automation assets are performing tasks quicker, cheaper, safer, and to a better standard than their human counterparts in manufacturing plants around the world.

Data-rich MES systems linked to interactive instruction manual are now replacing traditional paper-based production processes (and the anomaly that came with them), work stations wirelessly connected to all or any of the tooling utilized in a process are eliminating human selection error, sensors within that tooling are attesting to its own performance (and that of the operator), and therefore the data captured from all of these elements is transmitted to the cloud for storage and analysis. 

What we are left with maybe a digitally enhanced person at the guts of the method, an operator interacting with technology to perform their role during a quicker, higher-quality and more repeatable way….the hallmarks of an honest robot! 

In the aerospace industry, products often have a life cycle spanning several decades—over 50 years within the case of the Boeing 747! In most cases, the economic system and footprint are established at the outset of the program and never fundamentally revisited throughout the assembly run. Of course, incremental improvements are a given, but the mixing of serious heavy automation into a producing process whilst maintaining existing production is hugely prohibitive, expensive, and risky. 

The Industry 4.0 technologies touched on (only briefly) above offer a replacement and substantial opportunity to deliver significant process improvements to legacy manufacturing processes like those within the aerospace industry (and others with similar systemic challenges). 

In my opinion, we are now arriving at the tipping point for I4.0 in manufacturing; the technology is becoming ever cheaper and therefore the potential savings to our processes ever more obvious. For any revolution (whether cultural, political or technological) to really take hold there must reach some extent when the new way of doing things becomes a no brainer when it's so clearly the proper thing to try to that any challenge or skepticism falls away, we are at that time. 

Heavy robotic process automation will still advance and grow within the areas where it is sensible to take a position (in) and deploy those systems. However, for those areas where it doesn't, we now have a viable alternative to harness many of equivalent advantages— Industry 4.0 technology! Welcome to the age of the digitally enhanced human workforce.

Weekly Brief

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