How Human/Machine Cooperation Will Be Pivotal to Next Generation Industrial Workflows

By Lee Hibbert

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Long teaser: The advent of Industry 4.0 has meant that modern industrial systems are reliant on the widespread implementation of connected autonomous technology. This has enabled major improvements in productivity and output quality, as well as increasing operational uptime. However, the role of human operatives cannot be overlooked. More forward-thinking manufacturers can see that humans and machines will both have valuable contributions to make, and future success will depend on how effectively these parties can collaborate.

Short teaser: The smarter factory environments that Industry 5.0 will enable are going to mandate greater collaboration between humans and machines.

The elevated levels of automation that Industry 4.0 has brought with it are already leading to radical overhauls of both the manufacturing and processing sectors. The incorporation of advanced sensing and communication hardware has provided access to more detailed datasets and allowed more rapid responsiveness to conditions that could otherwise impinge on throughput or product quality. As we move towards Industry 5.0, however, things are going to change once again – with the benefits brought by embracing automation now needing to be combined with some degree of human involvement too.

The positive impact that Industry 4.0 is having on manufacturing and processing facilities is beyond doubt, and its pervasiveness is gaining momentum all the time. One of the key enablers of this has been the Internet of Things (IoT) – with distributions of compact, power-efficient, wireless-enabled sensor nodes allowing a multitude of different parameters to be monitored. The appeal of these nodes has grown dramatically, as the unit costs associated with them have kept lowering. Simultaneously, innovations have meant that they can be integrated into a greater breadth of functionality, and reductions in their power budgets have also contributed significantly to an acceleration of their widespread deployment within the industrial space. Based on major advances in sensor technology, which have delivered smaller, cheaper, and better-performing devices, these nodes are now being applied to a much more extensive array of industrial equipment. Low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) and cellular IoT protocols – such as LoRa, Sigfox, NB-IoT, and LTE-M – have provided the connectivity necessary for data captured by these nodes to be transferred back to the cloud. Once there, this data can be analyzed in detail, with the production/processing workflows examined to find possible inefficiencies and such. It is becoming increasingly commonplace for artificial intelligence (AI) to be employed when carrying out this analysis. AI is thus being acknowledged as the second key enabler of Industry 4.0.

Automation on its own can only take industrial endeavors so far, however. Although Industry 4.0 seems to have been predominantly about removing humans from the equation, it is now better appreciated that human involvement is not always a disadvantage it can often be a real asset.

Retaining the Human Touch

The employment of robotics on factory floors has brought numerous benefits to manufacturers. Robots can keep working continuously. Unlike human operatives, they do not get tired. Lunch or coffee breaks do not have to be provided, and there is no need for shift changeovers. They can execute their work at a faster pace – with accurate, repeatable results derived and no risk of errors occurring. What robots find themselves less comfortable dealing with is any change in the situation. Here they are not able to draw on experience, like a human member of the workforce would be able to do. This is why there will still be a need for humans at the heart of production/processing facilities’ operations, as they can provide an extra dimension that is simply beyond the scope of automated hardware.

In the future, there will need to be a more nuanced approach to industrial activities. Robots will be tasked with taking care of repetitive functions, as this is what they are ideally suited to. In addition to this, human staff will be present to undertake the more sophisticated higher-level functions, where an understanding of how a particular action might influence the rest of the workflow may be called for. They will be able to react to unforeseen circumstances and use their prior knowledge to resolve any problems that arise. 

Implementing Industry 5.0

The foremost challenge for Industry 5.0 to overcome will be how human and machine-based coworkers will be able to interact effectively. The bulky robotic arms that have been used in manufacturing sites over the last four decades have presented a threat to human operatives, they have had to be placed in safety cages to prevent them from causing injury. If robots are going to be able to benefit from human assistance (and vice-versa) then they will need to be able to operate in much closer proximity to one another.

Collaborative robots (or cobots) offer a solution to this problem. Firstly, they are much more lightweight than their robotic arm predecessors, posing less of a physical threat to human wellbeing. In addition, they incorporate a variety of different sensor devices that allow them to monitor their surroundings in real-time. Thus, should a human be nearby, they can adjust their movements accordingly. This means that humans will no longer need to be precluded from areas where industrial robots are in operation, and there will be scope for cooperative work to be conducted. 

The Rise of the Cobots

Though still in a nascent phase, interest in cobots is increasing all the time, with many large-scale manufacturers starting to install them in their production facilities. They are being used by a broad cross-section of industry sectors – from automotive and food processing to materials handling, agriculture, and consumer electronics. Research embarked upon by Decision Market Reports suggests that the global cobot business is going to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 40% between now and 2026. It will be worth approximately $7.9 billion by the end of that period.   

The initial cobot models introduced were relatively small and only capable of dealing with modest payloads (usually no more than 3kg). More recently, larger robots have started to emerge. These have payload capacities that are much more impressive (often in the region of 15kg). They support a more extensive scope of functionality and are thereby able to attend to a broader spectrum of application scenarios.

Industry 5.0 in Action

There are plenty of places where the collaborative approach to production that has already been described is now being implemented. Here are just a few examples.

The PSA Group (which is comprised of well-known car brands Peugeot, Citroën, Opel, and Vauxhall) is a good test case of where Industry 5.0 is starting to make a difference. It employs cobots for screw-driving applications on its assembly lines. Human operatives will place cobots in position so that they can fix screws onto vehicles as they travel along the production line. Once the work has been completed, each of these cobots rotates and returns itself to a resting position, ready for it to begin work on the next vehicle on the line. Not only is this set upbringing operational cost savings, it is also enhancing product quality (with geometric tolerance levels being far less than before).

BMW is another automobile manufacturer that has seen value in cobots. In this particular example, the company has given them the responsibility of riveting the crash-can assemblies – something that previously had to be done manually. The time that this work takes to do has been reduced by almost 20%. Furthermore, by offloading this function to cobots, human operatives can devote their time to other assembly tasks that are more in need of their insight.

Food producer BINA has also proclaimed itself as an early adopter of cobot technology. It has deployed cobots to take care of product labeling, with the upshot being that this work can be completed in a fraction of the time and with markedly better accuracy too. Researchers at King’s College London have demonstrated how automation of this kind could be of assistance to the horticultural sector – thereby enabling workforce shortages to be addressed. By having simple cobots assigned to some of the more menial tasks, a smaller number of humans will be needed to oversee the activities. Likewise, furniture manufacturer Moduform has deployed cobot technology in its New England production facility. The mundane aspects of furniture assembly can now be allocated to cobots, while trained staff concentrates on the elements that have greater importance – such as ensuring the quality of the finish, etc.

A Smarter Approach to Manufacturing

Since the late 18th Century, there have been increasing levels of automation added to production work. Industry 4.0 carries on that progression, applying similar logic to that which was applied to the textile mills or iron foundries of the past. With Industry 5.0 now starting to be discussed, it is clear that its objectives will need to be slightly different. Though it will still be about providing the highly automated environments necessary to make production/processing as efficient as possible, there will nonetheless be scenarios where it will benefit from well-judged human input too. What seems certain to happen is that a symbiotic relationship will be established between cobots and their organic counterparts. This will allow the respective strengths of each to be profited from – with one bringing speed, accuracy, and assured reliability, while the other provides superior cognitive and perspective skills.