The H(uman)-Factor in Industrial Automation
At the dawn of the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0) everybody talks about the on-going digitalization and automation of industrial processes. Technological developments like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Cyber-Physical Systems and Smart Objects (e.g., robots, drones, autonomous vehicles) will provide unprecedented levels of automation, that are destined to improve the competitiveness of most enterprises. In particular, automation will eliminate laborious and error prone processes, which will change dramatically the nature of work that will be carried out by workers in industrial environments. As a result, there are significant concerns about how human should engage in this new landscape. It is foreseen that workers will still remain at the center of industrial processes, given that they are still the most flexible and intelligent assets of an enterprise. However, this does not mean that human should adapt to automation at all times. There will be a lot of cases where automation systems will have also to adapt their operation to the physical and mental characteristics of the worker, but also to the workers’ skills. Such adaptations can boost the engagement of the workers in automation processes, while at the same time improving the workers’ productivity and the overall performance of production processes.
To support the adaptation of production systems and processes to the characteristics, needs and preferences of the workers, providers of industrial automation solutions collaborate with experts in human factors in the development of technologies that optimize the interactions between humans and machines. These technologies are conveniently characterized as “human centered” technologies.
Some prominent examples of human centered solutions and technologies follow:
These technologies boost the adaptation of automation systems to the profile of the humans. To this end, they are developed with the active participation of experts in human factors, including psychologists, labor experts, experts in operational research and various social scientists. However, the adaptation of systems to the humans’ needs has certainly some limits and cannot accommodate the needs of workers that lack proper skills. Workers cannot adapt to the wave of emerging digitally-enabled automation systems without improving their skills. To this end, training and skills development technologies are also developed and used by production systems operators.
In order to support the reskilling and training of workers on industrial processes, enterprises can nowadays take advantage of:
The consideration of human factors in the design and operation of advanced automation system is a very topical issue, given that enterprises, governments and policy makers are already preparing for the “future of work”. During the next couple of decades, we will see radical changes in the nature of work. Laborious processes will be gradually eliminated and new positions requiring digital skills will emerge. Millions of jobs will be lost, while other millions of new jobs will be also created. Enterprises and institutional stakeholders are gradually preparing for these changes. Specifically, they are considering policies and measures for:
Automation and AI will disrupt the landscape of industrial work in the years to come. Nevertheless, humans will still remain at the heart of industrial environments, even with quite different roles than today. Thus, proper consideration of human factors is essential for an accelerated and successful, yet smooth migration to the new era of work. Human centered technologies can serve as invaluable assets that could help enterprises succeed in this challenging transition process.
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