The history of manufacturing could easily be told as one of automation. From textile looms to automated assembly lines to intelligent cobots, for centuries manufacturers have found ways to replicate human labor at scale.
But thinking strictly in terms of automation doesn’t tell the whole story. More often, new technologies have worked alongside humans to empower them to work more efficiently, safely, and accurately. This is particularly true during Industry 4.0, when new digital technologies are enhancing every aspect of manufacturing work.
This process of enhancing human workers is augmentation. Given that research and experience have shown over and over that the best solutions are those that amplify the capabilities of manufacturing workers, this much is clear:
The future of manufacturing is augmentation.
The guide will introduce you to augmentation in manufacturing–its technologies, its use-cases, and its principles. We’ll define what augmentation means in the context of manufacturing, explain why manufacturing needs augmentation now, and survey the different technologies and applications that are augmenting workers on the shop floor as we speak.
“Worker Augmentation” Defined
In the context of manufacturing, “worker augmentation” refers to the use of technology to improve how workers do their jobs. Augmentative technologies are integrated and assistive. By integrated, we mean that they are a natural, unobtrusive part of a worker’s environment. And by assistive, we mean that they simplify or control some of the variables contributing to poor human performance. Ultimately, augmentative technologies allow workers to perform more specialized tasks with a higher degree of care.
There are a wide variety of types of augmentation, and augmentative technologies can assist with both physical and mental labor. Now boasting smarter, more intuitive interfaces, current augmentative technologies are characterized by seamless integration into the manufacturing environment.
Augmentative technologies can take a number of shapes and forms. The example that most manufacturers associate with augmentation is augmented reality headsets–visual displays that use machine learning, AI, and other forms of context analysis to overlay new information into the wearer’s field of vision.
But these are far from the only augmentative technologies
Other examples include environmental and bioinformatic sensors that monitor ambient conditions and worker health in real-time, alerting workers if there’s a potential for danger. There are computer vision systems that interact with operators as they work. Augmentation can also refer to technologies that relieve a worker’s cognitive load, such as real-time data aggregation and analysis or interactive work instructions. Augmentation can be as simple as IoT connected in-line quality checks, or as complicated as artificial reality.
When we talk about augmentation we’re talking about all of these technologies and more. We’re talking about any external, assistive system that lets manufacturers do their jobs better, more efficiently, and more safely.
Augmentation Evolves Work
Another way to define augmented work is work that integrates digital technologies into the manufacturing process to evolve how that work is done. Here, the use of new digital technologies actually changes the nature of manufacturing work.
Whether digital technologies assist workers or change how they work, manufacturers are already using augmentation to achieve significant competitive advantages. You can measure gains in performance from a human perspective: better attention, more comfortable conditions, more innovative thinking, long-term worker well-being. Or in terms of manufacturing goals and KPIs. Fewer errors. Higher quality. Higher throughput. Faster changeovers. Less downtime.
The guiding philosophy of augmentation is that improvements in human performance will translate into better manufacturing performance.
Why augmentation now?
There are three factors contributing to the need for augmentation at this particular moment.
First, manufacturing is facing a growing labor shortage. Over the next decade, research firms predict 2.2 million jobs will go unfilled in manufacturing. This is largely due to what researchers call the skills gap, or the lack of alignment between the skill set required for modern manufacturing work and the skill sets extant in the labor market.
Second, manufacturing work is changing at an accelerated rate. The tools of the trade, however, haven’t evolved quickly enough to help workers stay abreast. Changes in work have resulted in a situation in which the complexity of tasks increases the chances of poor human performance. This is true from front-line operators, who are tasked with the assemblies and machine maintenance too complex or variable to be automated. It’s equally true for manufacturing engineers, who are increasingly expected to perform tasks previously done by software engineers, IT, or data scientists.
Finally, automation is still not feasible for many manufacturing applications. Automation can be prohibitively expensive. It’s hard to scale. And, ironically, it’s labor-intensive. (Someone has to steward, program, and maintain all of those robotic arms). As Forbes recently noted, “Complexity, volume, and margin all combine in different ways to rule out the use of robots in many applications.”
Attempts at full automation remind us that, for all of their faults, humans are still magnificent machines. They’re intelligent, creative, flexible, adaptable, and able to learn and innovate. Placed side by side with automated solutions, you’d be hard-pressed to find better-articulated grippers, “computer” vision (what are our brains but squishy computers?), and real intelligence.
All of these factors (a growing skills gap, error-prone work systems, and the challenges of automation) have resulted in a situation in which manufacturers will need to bolster their workforce to achieve more.
The solution to these challenges, in other words, is augmentation.
Augmentation acknowledges that humans are central to manufacturing and that they’re going to remain central to manufacturing for the foreseeable future. They will, however, need assistance performing optimally.