Manufacturing 4.0: Just add people

Adding human intellect to technology produces greater results and ingenuity is central to manufacturing, increasing efficiency, inspiring a new generation of skilled workers, and creating bottom line profitability.

By Keith Barr September 20, 2018

Current advances in manufacturing have been branded as Industrie 4.0, an idea that accurately describes the rise of automation, robotics, and smart technology but omits the role of human workers. Manufacturing 4.0, in contrast, is a new dynamic era where unlocking and multiplying human ingenuity is central to manufacturing, increasing efficiency, inspiring a new generation of skilled workers, and creating bottom line profitability.

Manufacturing in the United States is evolving. Digitalization, improved monitoring and sensors, and faster computing and data networks have created a new, smart factory environment. This evolution has been described as Industrie 4.0, the merger of Internet of Things (IoT) technology, automation, and other smart factory technologies.

The problem with the current definition of Industrie 4.0 is that it ignores or discards the role of human knowledge and creativity. It is a weak argument that more data alone is enough to evolve manufacturing, or that robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) can analyze and solve complex issues the way a human can.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted on April 13, 2018, in response to production issues, "Yes, excessive automation at Tesla was a mistake. To be precise, my mistake. Humans are underrated."

Factory employees aren’t going anywhere soon. The question is, what role do they play going forward?

Manufacturing at a crossroads

The future of manufacturing is to activate plant floor workers and IoT and then leverage plant floor workers’ abilities to analyze the right data at the right time in the right places. Add in the use of integrated Lean principles, and manufacturers will create a culture of sustained continuous improvement. We call this Manufacturing 4.0 (Figure 1). It’s what Industrie 4.0 should be.

For too many years manufacturing made workers the enemy of progress. Manufacturers told consumers, shareholders, unions, and civic leaders that more profits will be created with more automation, computers, and technology. The unintended consequence was that manufacturing got a bad name as a non-worthwhile career path for every new generation of prospective workers. Coupled with the image of past generations’ low-tech, dark, and dirty manufacturing plants, it’s no surprise that manufacturers struggle to fill jobs.

Industrie 3.0, the current era of manufacturing, has been marked by computer-run automation. It is the era of relying less on employees in favor of complex automation and robotics. It also is the era of globalization. This has opened new markets, but also created new challenges as manufacturing has moved to less developed countries with little regulation and minimal standards for employee well-being.

Manufacturing was viewed as the domain of labor strife and unfulfilling work, while at the same time, a new generation of the workforce was raised in a digital environment-the iPhone generation. With the negative connotations associated with manufacturing, why would young workers entertain factory work? The lack of new generations of workers has accelerated the loss of manufacturing jobs here and in other developed countries.

Manufacturing is at a crossroad. Leadership has to determine if existing systems are sustainable, consider offshoring plants, or cast their fate with AI. Fortunately, there is another way.

Integrating computers and humans

Manufacturing 4.0 integrates systemized equipment with the greatest computer on the planet: the human mind. This is fundamentally different from Industrie 4.0, which focuses on IoT, sensors, robotics, and AI. It adds line operators, technicians, and other plant floor workers back into the equation, capturing human motivation and ideation across the plant floor.

There is a tendency for manufacturers to put sensors everywhere on the plant floor. The sensors can identify the problems, but the problems can’t be diagnosed or interpreted. When technology and production processes break, a person must respond, identify the problem’s root cause, and fix it or devise a workaround.

The average factory has a mix of disparate systems, which can make the input and accessibility of data difficult as well. Many of these systems are amenable to sensors while others are not, but the amount of data that IoT sensors can pull from them easily creates a data overload dilemma that plant leadership must untangle.

That delays abnormality problem solving, which is counter to Manufacturing 4.0. By harnessing IoT and presenting data to people in an actionable way (e.g., visualized), manufacturing takes advantage of new developments in computing, resulting in improved efficiency, better accuracy, predictive analytics, and more profitability.

A common plant floor standard

A common plant floor standard is the goal of most manufacturers and, has been nearly impossible to achieve without significant cost and risk. A Lean Execution System (LES) provides a feasible way to attain it because it ties together existing disparate systems.There’s no need to rip and replace systems.

An LES allows employees, regardless of their roles, a single system to input, communicate, and extract data, which in turn helps Manufacturing 4.0 (Figure 2). When production lines and plants are working with one system, ambiguity of data is removed and accuracy is enhanced.

Full visibility of data comes with another critical benefit. It provides visibility of operations and enables workers to analyze, comprehend, and make better decisions. Suddenly, workers are empowered. They are freed to identify efficiencies and develop innovations.

In these cases, technology isn’t replacing humans. It’s enhancing human performance. Teams and individual workers can see where and how others are elevating plant performance, therefore creating a culture of continuous improvement and best practice sharing. The result is ongoing innovation as teams devise better ways to accomplish tasks and prevent production abnormalities.

Manufacturing 4.0 also will be an era of dynamic workplaces that challenge workers. It will return human workers to an integral part of manufacturing. It will attract new workers to manufacturing; workers with ambition and new skills. Human talents, the ability to analyze, reason, adapt, and create, will be essential to move manufacturing forward. Once the nature of a dynamic manufacturing workplace is revealed and communicated to prospective employees, it can only attract new generations of workers that will once again take pride in human achievement on the plant floor.

Keith Barr is president & CEO of Leading2Lean, a CFE Media content partner.

Author Bio: Keith Barr, L2L