The rapid convergence of operational and information technologies is decisively transforming the world of industrial production, often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Consider the huge robotic arms in a decades-old manufacturing plant. Until recently, each arm was managed by a computer and did a simple precise pick and place task. No more. Now, thanks to plant-wide technological improvements, these robotic arms can all be connected to each other and work in tandem, completing a larger number of manufacturing tasks intelligently. To be sure, manufacturing enterprises are always learning to adapt to technological trends. But it is also a capital-intensive industry, with long life-cycles for processes. The industry is testing the promises of the Fourth Industrial Revolution where newer technology integrates with the aging infrastructure of a manufacturing facility.
It is interesting to note that in a recent survey that Infosys commissioned on AI adoption across industries, 29% of the nearly 275 respondents, in the manufacturing sector, confirmed that AI technologies have been fully deployed in their organizations, and these are also delivering up to expectations. 40% of the respondents viewed AI as being fundamental to the success of the organizations strategy.
Humans and Machines Collaborating
Those of us from the IT industry, with a focus on the manufacturing sector, will agree that while the rapid convergence of operational and information technologies is exciting, they must also be facilitated with care. My colleagues working for the retail sector can transform their business models within months, or install a store-full of beacons and sensors overnight. Industrial manufacturing, however, cannot afford a disruptive transformation like this. Being capital and machine intensive, the transformation of heavy industries has to be incremental, with minimal disruption, and measurable improvements.
In addition, the next generation of manufacturing relies heavily on earlier technological transformation to increase the life of existing infrastructure, improve productivity, and manage the retiring workforce. There exists today, a heavy dependency on individuals and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to maintain valuable equipment used in a factory. That is because the person maintaining the equipment is the only one who knows which component to change when a problem occurs and how to access that component. If that experienced employee were to suddenly leave, the specialized knowledge goes with him.
This dependency can be eliminated using technology. The transition would be completed when robots take over and start managing complex maintenance activities. The inherent benefits in automation include detecting parts in equipment not easily accessible to human workers. Factories would be able to get more from their existing assets with minimum disruption and downtime before retiring the assets.
Technology, is also eliminating the dependencies on specialized skills by improving operations through artificial intelligence. Still, the big question is what will happen to the human workers? Will they be displaced? The answer lies in looking back at the history of previous industrial revolutions and what followed them. The experts of todays manufacturing plants are sought-after resources when a new manufacturing plant is being set up. The smartest of the bunch will transition to new consultancy roles, rather than the predominantly operational ones. The same is true for factory workers who would be reskilled to handle the new technology that manages production.
Man Vs. Machine or Man & Machine?
The integration of human decision-making and an automated system is a complex task. Where, when, and to what extent humans and robots should both be included in the decision-making loop? Allocating functions between humans and computers is critical in defining efficient and effective system architectures. However, despite the recognition of this problem many decades ago, we've made little progress in balancing the allocation of roles. Until now, that is. Recent developments in automation has enhanced reliability, safety, payload capacity, dexterity, and flexibility, and enabled collaboration between human workers and industrial robots for manufacturing tasks that cannot be managed otherwise.
In a human-robot collaboration, the human operator controls and monitors production and the robot performs the physically strenuous work. Both contribute their specific capabilities: a decisive principle of Industry 4.0. The combination of a machines ability to conduct precise and repeatable operations with the human ability to see, feel, touch and think will increase efficiency, quality, and joint system capability to handle emergencies. The scenario I've described has created a new realm of industrial mass production and achieved significant economic and ergonomic benefits.
Robots: The Next Generation
When considering role allocation between humans and computers, it is useful to consider who or what can perform the skills and expertise-based behaviors required for a given objective and associated set of tasks. For many skill-based tasks, like flying an aircraft, automation generally outperforms humans. A new generation of intelligent industrial robots will learn from their human colleagues who will simply demonstrate the necessary actions. In other words, besides maintaining a stable trajectory on autopilot, next-generation robots will be able to take off and land a large passenger airplane, as well as taxi it to the appropriate gate.
The German robotics company KUKA has developed the first robot that is approved for human-robot collaboration. The KUKA LBR iiwa uses intelligent control technology, high-performance sensors, and state-of-the-art software technologies to enable completely new collaborative solutions in production technology. Even the most difficult tasks that have been previously performed manually can now be automated cost-effectively. The robots mobile platform, the KUKA flexFellow, can be individually deployed at whatever location and for whatever purpose, corresponding to production requirements.
The Future Belongs to Us
Organizations that will embrace advanced robotic technologies will continuously improve their top and bottom lines. How? By creating next-generation connected products and services. Automation technology will amplify the human potential to foster innovation and create exciting products.