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To program robots is human, to problem-solve is divine

Thorsten Wuest  Assistant Professor and  J. Wayne & Kathy Richards  Faculty Fellow in Engineering, West Virginia University
By Thorsten Wuest Assistant Professor and J. Wayne & Kathy Richards Faculty Fellow in Engineering, West Virginia University

FIELD INTELLIGENCE: Smart Processes, Solutions & Strategies

The COVID-19 black swan event disrupted the global economy and forced companies to rapidly rethink their processes, operations and supply networks. The manufacturing industry was in the midst of a digital transformation, which manifests in smart manufacturing systems built on the core principles of connectivity, virtualization and data utilization.

AI and robotics were heavily scrutinized in the media pre-COVID-19 for their perceived threat to cause large scale loss of manufacturing jobs and essentially make human operators obsolete. While this was challenged with the argument that tasks change and disappear yet jobs remain and flourish, the pandemic caused a rethink and revealed the potential of these technologies in supporting and augmenting the human operator instead of simply replacing them.

Remote work, travel restrictions, mandatory safety measures and other COVID-19 policies have illustrated clearly how companies that embraced these transformative technologies and prepared their workforce fared significantly better than those that have not. This brought new attention to the criticality of the human element on the manufacturing shop floor.

We need to stop thinking of these as conflicting: AI/robotics applications on one side and human operators’ jobs on the other. They are mutually beneficial.

First, these technologies can be used to empower the human operator and enhance their ability to perform their tasks significantly. The future tech-enabled operator—the Operator 4.0—is a smart and skilled operator that forms human-automation symbiosis within cyber-physical systems to address various needs on the shopfloor and beyond. Examples of Operator 4.0 technologies include: exoskeletons to increase strength and stamina, wearables to monitor health and safety, and smart glasses to augment the access to critical data.

Second, from a process and economics perspective, more AI and automation is not always the answer. Robotics and AI are no silver bullet. There is an optimal degree of automation that depends on a variety of parameters. Automating to the max exponentially increases the required supporting tasks, such as programming the robots and adapting to changes in product and process. Humans handle these tasks today. We need to find a careful balance between value created and efforts required by automating physical and cognitive processes and workflows.

We can all agree this sounds promising and positive with regard to future smart manufacturing systems. But the devil is in the details.

Developing and designing the new capabilities and technologies to create variants of the Operator 4.0 for different industries, use cases and individuals is a tremendous task. At the same time, defining the optimal degree of automation for tasks and organizations requires a careful assessment of the processes and requirements. Again, these are all tasks where human ingenuity is and remains crucial.

To inform this transition, we need coordinated action from companies, academe, policy makers and our experts on the shop floor.

Let’s revisit the notion of AI and robotics making human operators obsolete. The opposite is true: AI and robotics enable human operators to achieve their full potential in future smart manufacturing systems. Robots and automation take over the dangerous and repetitive physical tasks, while AI does that with regard to repetitive, stressful and strenuous cognitive tasks. Therefore, they free up humans to do what humans do best: creative problem solving, radical innovation and continuous improvement.

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