Shop Talk: Finding roles for humans and machines in manufacturing

Steve Brown delivers his keynote address at Manufacturing Matters.
Steve Brown delivers his keynote address at Manufacturing Matters.

It turns out that polishing is among the manufacturing tasks that are more difficult to automate than others.

“It’s really hard to explain to a robot when something is shiny enough,” said Steve Brown, a futurist and chief executive officer of Possibility and Purpose.

However, Brown suggested that combining human skills with a robot and other technology could dramatically boost productivity. A robot would start polishing a piece and then, using metallurgy and augmented reality as a guide, a human could finish the process.

“We’re moving to a new era of work,” Brown said during his keynote at the 2020 Manufacturing Matters conference presented by WMEP Manufacturing Solutions.

Brown pointed to six technologies – 5G and satellite networks, artificial intelligence, autonomous machines, the Internet of Things, blockchain and augmented reality – shaping the future across industries, including manufacturing.

“This is a really exciting time to be in manufacturing, because you’ve got some really cool stuff coming that’s going to help you address some of the issues and challenges you have today and that’s going to take what you do to the next level,” said Brown, who previously worked as a futurist and chief evangelist at Intel Corp.

Of course, the promise of technology is not new to manufacturing. Automation and robotics have been around for years and more recently experts have pointed to the promise of Industry 4.0 and increasingly the idea of Industry 5.0.

Brown said that if Industry 4.0 is about digitization and creating a digital model of the manufacturing plant, he feels Industry 5.0 is coalescing around the idea of bringing humans and human skill back into manufacturing. He said it is about creating a manufacturing environment that embraces humans and machines working side-by-side in partnership with the goal of creating more personalized products for customers.

“Work is going to change for all of us,” Brown said. “As you look at the tasks you have on the manufacturing floor, this is the job that everybody in America is going to have to go through in the next five to 10 years: Look at all those tasks and ask the tough question, which of those tasks is best done by a human and which is best done by a robot or an AI and how do you use sensors to be able to gracefully handoff between those three?”

Within specific technologies, Brown pointed to the ability of AI to collaborate with humans in designing products, trying out thousands of options that meet specifications instead of relying solely on human imagination.

“AI enables us to solve problems we don’t know how to solve ourselves,” Brown said.

In robotics, Brown highlighted the evolution from machines in cages in factories for safety reasons to collaborative machines that work with humans.

“I’m seeing robots in every industry that I work with. They’re getting a lot more capable because artificial intelligence is giving them the capability to see, hear and to understand the world in increasing detail,” he said.

Brown played a series of videos showing robots running, jumping, lifting objects and doing a variety of other things that would have seemed unlikely not long ago. He cautioned that he was playing the videos in which the robots worked and there are plenty of examples of things going wrong.

While some of the technology is still developing, Brown suggested to his audience of manufacturers that they, along with every other company, are now first and foremost a technology and data company.

“The gap between the companies that don’t embrace technology and (those) that do has always been there, but that gap is going to widen dramatically in the next decade,” he said.

Ultimately, Brown said the technologies he highlighted would commoditize more physical work and even some knowledge work, creating an opportunity for a new era of work.

“As you think about your automation strategy … be smart about how you do it, don’t just try to replace workers. Figure out how you can take the worker you have and lift them up. Figure out how you can use technology to elevate human work, to make it so your workers really want to come in every day and they’re passionate about the mission that you have,” Brown said.

Questions to consider:

Which tasks on your plant floor are best for robots, humans or a combination?

How can automation lift up your employees and create new opportunities for them?

Does your company truly embrace technology?

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Arthur covers banking and finance and the economy at BizTimes while also leading special projects as an associate editor. He also spent five years covering manufacturing at BizTimes. He previously was managing editor at The Waukesha Freeman. He is a graduate of Carroll University and did graduate coursework at Marquette. A native of southeastern Wisconsin, he is also a nationally certified gymnastics judge and enjoys golf on the weekends.

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