Work Assistance in Tech
The future of manufacturing is often characterised by an increase in complexity, efficiency and sustainability. As the execution frequency of simple and repetitive tasks decreases, manual tasks are likely to become more complex.
In fact, the rising complexity of production may require manufacturing skills which cannot be efficiently automated. Executives anticipate an integrative scenario, in which both robots and operators will work together on the shop floor.
Suitability of worker assistance systems
Worker assistance systems are expected to be mainly complementary, cognitive support systems for operators performing tasks related to diagnosis and optimisation, or standard operating procedures – like the example of the operator with digital assembly instructions.
While the work of human operators in manufacturing is continuing to shift, human operators are likely to remain in control of operations on the shop floor for the foreseeable future.Major applications of assistive technology are expected in: variety and exception handling; support of complex standard operating procedures; data analysis, diagnosis and optimisation, and digital engineering.
The exception is anticipated to be in work areas such as the manufacturing of components and inbound logistics, where the number of manual tasks is likely to decrease and, eventually, human operators may become redundant.
Acceptance of assistive technology
In general, executives and instructors take a human-centric, integrative perspective on future manufacturing. That is, given the acceptance of operators, the fulfilment of relevant safety requirements, and economic effectiveness, executives and instructors welcome assistive technology on shop floors.
In industrial learning scenarios (e.g. an apprenticeship), operators also welcome extensive cognitive support to quickly acquire complex skills and learn at their individual pace. In fact, many operators would potentially accept a ‘robot teacher’ supervising their progress and providing individual real-time feedback.
After finishing their practical training programmes, however, operators’ attitude towards worker support systems seems to change. Experienced operators seem to reject assistive technology that aims to give explicit training or technological support during tasks which they perceive themselves to have a degree of mastery.
Operators also strongly prefer a support initiation mechanism that is controlled by them rather than an autonomous initiation mechanism triggered by sensors and intelligent systems.
When compared with the acceptance of cognitive support, operators’ opinions on body-worn technology for physical assistance (like exoskeletons) appear more reserved.
Operators are excited about the potential of physical assistance systems, but they fear negative effects on both their physical and mental health.
Future of work assistance- Room for improvement
When thinking about assistive technology it is paramount to carefully consider the individual circumstances of manufacturers and their stakeholders in the industry.
Assistive technology will change the way humans work on the shop floor, how they interact and collaborate with machines. Assistive technology, however, is not about designing the most advanced technology.
It is also not about engineering prototypes which never make it to a single shop floor. It is about meaningfully assisting humans and their skills.
Assistive technology will not be the silver bullet that solves all the most pressing challenges in a manufacturing organisation. However, some assistive technology, especially cognitive assistance systems, is becoming increasingly feasible to deploy while maintaining a human-centric perspective.
Manufacturing organisations should therefore be more actively communicating the value and necessity of operators on their future shop floor.