To maintain the competitive edge while optimizing operations' efficiency, profitability, and sustainability, manufacturers need a more experienced labor force with an extensive set of skills.
Part 1: Why Manufacturing Needs Augmentation
From the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers have focused on evolving their processes to capitalize on greater efficiencies, safer systems, and lower costs. Automation is an integral part of the manufacturing evolution–but is automation possible at the required depth and breadth to deliver the efficiency gains that manufacturers demand?
In 2014, some predicted that software or machines would replace one in three manufacturing jobs by 2025. But as we learn more about Industry 4.0 and get closer to that target year, industry trends tell a different story. Even by their most generous estimates, many firms do not envision a fully automated manufacturing industry within the near future.
Instead, studies find that “The future of manufacturing is augmentation.”
Automation, augmentation… What’s the difference?
Automation, which replicates or replaces human labor at scale, is a well-known concept with a long history in manufacturing. “Worker Augmentation” is fundamentally different–it enhances worker efficiency, accuracy, and safety through new technologies. Rather than simply replacing workers, this more recent practice empowers workers to work with and beside technologies.
A university study found that augmented workforces lead to “more human” work environments. Such environments improve worker performance more than fully automated assembly lines.
How exactly are “worker augmentation” technologies integrated into manufacturing? It depends on the manufacturer and potential workers’ needs to fulfill their desired tasks. And depending on these requirements, augmentation technologies are either integrated or assistive.
- Integrated augmented technologies seamlessly fit into the worker’s environment or workflow.
- Assistive technologies allow workforces to perform specialized tasks with a more precise level of care by controlling workflow variables.
Understanding the scope of integrative and assistive augmented technologies requires knowledge of the three automation technology categories.
Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is the simplest version of automation. The most common example of RPA is when a robot performs a repetitive task.
Machine learning is where a computer uses a large set of data to understand and predict a course of action. With each interaction, the computer gains more data and improves its understanding of the end-user.
Cognitive augmentation is the closest we’ve come to true artificial intelligence. This type of automation allows a computer to interact with unstructured data and answer complicated queries.
An augmented workforce can interact and collaborate with technology at all three levels of automation. However, those interactions are in environments where technology is either assistive or integrated into the manufacturing process.
Examples of Augmentation Workplace Tools
Augmentation technologies come in a wide variety of types and are used in wide-ranging work environments to assist both physical and mental labor. Common examples of integrated augmented technologies include:
- Augmented reality headsets use visual displays that incorporate machine learning or cognitive augmentation to share and analyze data within the user’s field of vision.
- Bioinformatic sensors monitor a worker’s environment and alert them of potential dangers.
- Exosuits or exoskeletons augment the strength and agility of workers, which helps reduce incident rates, boost morale, and increase worker output. These are all critical in heavy industry applications, where physical strength predetermines a worker’s productivity.
Assistive augmentation technologies provide interactive work environments. Such an augmented working environment ranges in scope and complexity. It can be relatively “simple” as using data collected from sensors to measure real-time changes to process outputs. Or, it can be as complicated as creating artificial reality spaces such as a digital twin or using Internet of Things (IoT) quality checks.
The Benefits of Augmentation Technologies
Digital technologies are already boosting productivity in manufacturing by assisting and changing how people work. The balance between human labor and digital technologies delivers additional manufacturing and personnel benefits:
- Augmented work environments are safer. Such environments constantly monitor worker health and lower the cognitive load on workers during their activities.
- The technological assistance created by augmented environments improves worker efficiency.
- Augmented work environments result in fewer worker errors and higher output quality, leading to fewer materials wasted and reduced downtime.
- Augmented environments help ensure a safer, more productive, and efficient job site, which leads to a happier work experience.
- Augmentation helps expand the pool of potential workers available to perform skilled manufacturing work.
- Augmentation does not discriminate by age. Both younger workers with less experience and older workers with greater expertise but degrading strength and coordination can benefit from augmentation technologies.
Why Augmentation Technologies Now?
Maintaining a competitive edge while optimizing operations’ efficiency, profitability, and sustainability, manufacturers need a more experienced labor force with an extensive set of skills. But unfortunately, the skills gap in manufacturing continues to grow. Industry research suggests that as many as 2.2 million manufacturing jobs will go unfilled within the next decade. And, there’s a widening gap between the number of job openings and the skilled talent pool capable of filling them.
Automation can’t entirely replace the 2.2 million open positions. Many manufacturers are not ready to embrace a fully automated assembly line anytime soon. Automated systems are inherently expensive and challenging to scale, program, monitor, and maintain without significant human involvement.
As a result, several manufacturing roles will still demand skilled humans. As Forbes detailed in 2018, “Complexity, volume, and margin all combine in different ways to rule out the use of robots in many applications.”
Thanks to its strong cognitive abilities, the human brain is a brilliant blueprint for a machine. Knowledge and understanding are acquired through thought, experience, and the five senses. Humans are capable of flexibility, learning, reasoning, creativity, innovation, and adapting to circumstances in ways that machines cannot.
Augmentation helps manufacturers leverage human cognitive skills to their full potential. The need for more sustainable operations intensifies as the growing skills gap challenges productivity. To maintain a competitive edge, augmentation technologies promise to elevate human performance to new levels.
How Kelvin Can Help
Kelvin’s leading sustainable operations software helps clients achieve their sustainability goals to reach new levels of business excellence. Combining human intelligence and machine learning, our event detection and workflow automation solutions let companies optimize operational efficiency, maximize performance, boost profitability, and minimize emissions and energy costs–a phenomenon we call “The Kelvin Effect.”
Want to learn how The Kelvin Effect can help you optimize your asset performance and meet your sustainability goals? Contact us today.