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Mass customization will only work if we return the power to the people

By Jürgen von Hollen President, Universal Robots

As I walked the floor this spring at North America’s largest trade show for automation technologies, Industry 4.0 was on everybody’s lips. One of the more complex of our industrial revolutions, Industry 4.0 has been about the Internet of Things: digitizing and connecting things, including manufacturing supply chains, and collecting and analyzing data to extract new value.

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But consumers—and, importantly, factory workers—want more. The consumers expect personalization, but on a much larger scale. To get there, we need to embrace what we at Universal Robots call Industry 5.0.

Incorporating robots in manufacturing has been growing in popularity since they were first implemented as part of Industry 3.0 (defined by programmable logic and advanced manufacturing).

Robots grew up in the automotive industry, where they were used primarily to weld car bodies together. As technologies matured, so did robots, evidenced by their early adoption in the medical and food industries. In fact, in 2006 more robots were used outside the automotive industry than inside. That pivotal moment fueled the changes in manufacturing we are seeing today.

With Industry 5.0, we’re taking what we’ve learned about automation in 4.0 and bringing the human factor more to the forefront, giving people their power back.

A recent example is Darex, a maker of drill and knife sharpeners that upskilled its operators to use collaborative robots. Brittany Mohrman enthusiastically joined the training. “It was really exciting to get the opportunity to do something different, so I jumped right in and learned all I could,” she said, admitting the she was initially a bit intimidated by the robot. “But it was so interesting to see what you can make it do, and how you can change it in so many different ways. My job is definitely more interesting now.”

The unfilled jobs we all keep hearing about are partially the result of people not having control over what they’re doing. They’re not passionate about their jobs; they hate them. It is work for robots, performed by humans. So people leave.

They want a tool to take over what we call “the 3D tasks”—the dull, dirty, and dangerous—so they can work in more meaningful jobs.

And that’s why I believe that the next industrial revolution is about bringing the human touch back.

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There are many reports that look at the productivity gained by using the competence of the human and the strength of automation. Scientists at MIT showed that humans and robots working together at BMW in Germany were 85% more productive than robots and humans alone. If you put the two together, you have a stronger approach, with better results. This is one of the key value propositions of Industry 5.0.

Buying a car in the 1990s traditionally involved selecting a make and model at a car dealership, and then, if nothing in the showroom quite fit the bill, perhaps ordering the car in a particular color with extras like AC. Now, car buyers of regular means have so many options to choose from that they have a good chance of getting a car that appears as one of a kind.

I believe that the personalized products consumers demand most, and are willing to pay the most for, have the distinctive mark of human care and craftsmanship. These products can only be made through human involvement and human engagement.

This desire for mass personalization forms the psychological and cultural driver behind Industry 5.0, which is defined by using technology to return human value-add to manufacturing. With humans now playing a more active role, Industry 5.0 products really give people the wherewithal to appreciate the basic human urge to express themselves—even if they have to pay a premium price to do so.

Enter collaborative robots. Far from fenced-off industrial robots that replace human workers with automated processes, “cobots” enhance human craftsmanship with the speed, accuracy and precision required to make modern products with a human touch. Because while consumers might want to express themselves through hand-painted flowerpots, they also want to do it with their smartphones, headsets and car designs, where high mix/low volume production with frequent changeovers demand flexible automation tools that can quickly be moved between those 3D jobs as they work alongside employees.

Collaborative robots are the tools companies need to produce the personalized products consumers demand today, bringing the human touch to the masses. Collaborative robots are essentially power tools that give craftspeople (aka “operators”) superhuman powers in terms of speed and accuracy. Which is what it takes to make industrially manufactured products with a human touch.

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