Smart Factories: Cobots and Connectivity Revitalizing Human Relevance en-route to Industry 5.0

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Smart Factories: Cobots and Connectivity Revitalizing Human Relevance en-route to Industry 5.0
Anand Birje Corporate Vice President & Head- Digital & Analytics Practice | March 16, 2020
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As Industry 4.0 thunders on, the need for smart machines to fuel the journey to the future can’t be stressed upon enough. However, the future can only be catered to via human-machine synergies.

Create algorithms to replicate human perceptions, understanding, and tendencies but retain the decision-making discretion

Through the explosion of wireless connectivity across production systems, Industry 4.0 has redefined businesses and changed how the world perceives core industries like manufacturing. Beyond factory floors becoming smarter and more streamlined, machines have made the biggest difference with their ever-evolving capabilities.

Unlocking Value through Smart Machines

Mechanization, early automation, and digitization were the precursors of Industry 4.0 with connectivity being the common binding aspect. Together, these trends have led to machines that communicate with each other and with their operators. In doing so, machines have successfully taken non-critical, repetitive tasks off human hands.

Industries’ growing reliance on automation is a testament to the increased capabilities of machines. A recent survey indicates that by 2020, there will be more than three million industrial robots on factory floors across the world. With increasing labor cost and decreasing robot prices, more repetitive tasks are being assigned to machines while roles for humans are being redrawn. A study looking at the evolution of smart factories states that over the next decade, manufacturing will see threefold productivity improvements courtesy of Industry 4.0. Smart machines and industrial robots, in conjunction with digitized operating models, are poised to effectively unlock the capabilities of the manual workforce and accelerate business value creation.

The emergence of machines and the emphasis they are enjoying begs the question – are humans still relevant?

Making the Humanist Machines

As technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), and analytics mature, the trends seeded by them will simultaneously evolve and manifest in the form of Industry 5.0. We have seen Industry 4.0 put intelligent systems at the forefront of manufacturing. Industry 5.0 will give rise to collaboration between these systems and their creators.

We’re looking at a future where humans further on the ambition of having machines ease their lives. In order to create that future, we will need to add a human dimension to the machines: collaboration.

So far, machines are successful in deciphering structured data. For instance, information such as phone numbers, zip codes, and social security numbers that come under the purview of relational database management system (RDBMS) usually form structured data. This structured data is easy to track and analyze, and AI is already capable of analyzing this data with the help of natural language processing (NLP) and structured query language (SQL). From the manufacturing perspective, tasks like inventory management and invoice generation becomes easier, faster, and error-free with the assistance of AI.

However, unstructured data such as text files, online behavior, satellite imagery, and sensor data, which don’t feature in RDBMSes, are more difficult to analyze. With further advancements in cognitive computing, AI-powered robots will be able to analyze and learn from unstructured data as well. In doing so, machines will become increasingly self-sufficient and simplify the human-machine interface. Humans will have to make these “cobots” smarter by creating algorithms that replicate human perceptions, understanding, and tendencies, while retaining the decision-making discretion.

Co-working with Robots

With the possibility of machines taking over almost all repetitive tasks, humans will be needed to focus on perception-driven decision making. For example, design thinking is a human-centered initiative that uses technology and machines, but decisions and creativity are ultimately fueled by human judgment. With concepts like digital twin and additive manufacturing starting to show tangible results, the responsibilities of humans and machines are becoming demarcated.

To expand further, additive manufacturing is the perfect example of how human-machine harmony can improve operational efficiency. Cyber-physical systems use IoT, big data, and cloud computing to create virtual 3D models of products for analysis and fine-tuning before they are manufactured. At the center of the activity is the seamless communication between the various machines and their operators.

An increase in number and intelligence of machines will see the establishment of more smart factories. But, while machines process and analyze data, humans will still be responsible for programing and guiding these machines.

Industry 5.0 will also enable human-machine synergies to transcend the factory floor and impact other industries such as healthcare and retail. Processes like supply chain management will benefit immensely from this collaborative approach, optimizing data through predictive analytics. Furthermore, with regulations being frequently altered across industries and geographies, the human-machine collaboration will make organizations more compliant by virtue of real-time data processing and decision-making.

Industry 5.0 will enable human-machine synergies to transcend the factory floor and impact industries such as healthcare and retail

Societal Impacts of a Mechanized Workforce

By nature, humans are wary of a change in status quo, and the very notion of disruption evokes skepticism. With machines growing in importance and mastering human tasks with ease, the threat of job loss is not ill-founded. Automation is aimed at standardizing and maximizing output while minimizing costs. It is, therefore, worth considering the impact on wages. With decreasing robotics prices and increasing human wages, societies may need to apply a universal basic income (UBI) to cover for the reduction of bargaining power of the human workforce.

Beyond wages, the human workforce needs welfare benefits, breaks, and sick leaves, while automated assets need only occasional repair and upgrade. The idea of automation paying for UBI is futuristic but implementable. Of course, this also paves the way for a myriad of concerns such as mass lay-offs and unemployment. This is a key reason why leaders in the technology space are urging businesses to investigate leveraging machines to drive massive business benefit, but to do so with caution. The engine of progress cannot be stopped. However, with planning and foresight, we can take steps to ensure that it works for the betterment of society.

Collaboration and not Conflict

Collaboration, and not conflict, with machines is the way forward. As machines continue to get smarter, humans too will have to upskill themselves and be the rightful “masters of the machines.” Human roles will evolve alongside those of machines, in turn creating new jobs and opportunities for humans. As a recent study pointed out, the arrival of machines has not dissuaded organizations from hiring more humans. The study highlights that the German automotive industry saw a growth of 17% in the number of robots installed between 2010 and 2015. In the same period, the growth in the number of employees hired across the industry was surprisingly, 13%. Hence, we must look beyond our worries and cynicism, and realize that human and machines will shape the future together.

One of the primary focus points for forward looking organizations should be investing in upskilling the human workforce. The right combination of technology and knowledge will be the key differentiator for organizations of the future. In order to utilize the full potential of technology and optimize the human talent pool, organizations must revisit their working styles. The digital, device-driven world enables humans to work remotely, to enjoy flexible, trust-based working hours, and to have the option of job sharing which are essential aspects of the modern work sphere. The end goal is to create innovative jobs and allow humans to express themselves. After all, jobs such as elemental technology development and design thinking demand a capacity of craftsmanship and imagination, which cannot be replicated by even the smartest of machines.