Many manufacturers are looking to automation as a way to compete with other parts of the world with lower labor costs and less stringent regulations. And while automation is part of the future, as we saw in a previous article about the “dark factory,” there will always be a need for human intervention.
Be sure to do that in a way that compensates for the limitations of human beings, and gains from their strengths.
One limitation is that people have a tendency to get bored, lose attention and miss problems if they are asked to focus for too long. So, determine what you really need to know about your operation – the health of a compressor motor, for example – and then set up automated monitoring systems for those critical factors.
But use human employees’ physical dexterity, unmatched by any robot, for accessing difficult places, particularly those that are up a ladder and along a catwalk.
And get the most from their mental dexterity too – their abilities to see patterns, to connect factors together, to be curious. It takes a human – not a robot or a sensor – to note that “Hey, that motor’s sounding different today,” and deduce that it may be vibrating loose from its fittings. They might remember that the same thing happened ten years ago, so it may be important to take prompt action to avoid a more serious problem.
Many attempts have been made to replicate human ingenuity with expert systems that tried to encapsulate human knowledge, or programming a robot. But the programmers can’t foresee all possibilities. Plant-floor workers can’t do that either, but they do have the ability to learn, to reason, to collaborate and take initiatives that make the plant operate more smoothly – even with fewer workers in the building.
The result is a more satisfied workforce, who have more interesting and engaging work, and continued viability for America’s manufacturing backbone.