Does the vision of a “new normal” on the factory floor exclude the presence of people at all?
Without question, manufacturers in recent few decades have been inching steadily toward automation, resulting in fewer and fewer warm bodies on the production line. Tedious, repetitive tasks — the kind that have dominated factories since Henry Ford began churning out Model Ts in the early 20th century — are a natural for machines, which never get bored or (theoretically) make mistakes.
In some instances, the trend has culminated in the creation of “lights-out” warehouses and factories, where there’s not a person to be seen among the racks and conveyors. (Or the need for illumination to guide human eyes and hands; hence the term.) But those kind of facilities remain relative rare today, confined to products that are highly uniform and unchanging in nature.
Yet manufacturing isn’t immune to the coronavirus pandemic, which has touched every aspect of business and the supply chain. In the months (and possibly years) ahead, manufacturers will have to take into account the need for social distancing, in environments that have long necessitated close contact. What better way to address the problem than to replace humans with disease-free machines?
That’s likely to happen to an increasingly greater degree, but there’s a widely voiced counterargument to the push for all-robot factories. Simply put, humans are in key ways indispensable. Their judgment remains critical, even in the age of artificial “intelligence” — at least until machines have grown a lot smarter than they are today. To be sure, the human role is changing; people aren’t needed to push buttons or validate the quality of widgets speeding along a production line. But neither are they destined for the metaphorical scrap heap, in all but the simplest manufacturing environments.
So what’s the real end game for automation in the factory? In the short run, expect to see a lot more of it. As the pandemic subsides, consumer demand is likely to surge. That’s already happening in critical areas like food and beverage. Factories aren’t just back to operation; “they’re stretched to the limit,” says Saar Yoskovitz, chief executive officer of Augury, a producer of hardware and A.I-driven software for monitoring machine health and performance. Essentially, manufacturers in certain sectors are being asked to triple or quadruple output with half the staff.
One of the biggest challenges for factories today is keeping track of operations remotely. Managers still need to manage teams and machines, but they might be in a separate facility or even another city. (Or, if sheltering in place, at home.) The situation calls for a greater emphasis on risk management, which includes the use of new monitoring tools and preventive maintenance to stop disruptions from happening in the first place. Which machines need fixing right now? How long can they run without interruption? Which spare parts should be on order, before they’re actually needed? These days, says Yoskovitz, factories can’t even afford planned downtime, let alone unexpected breakdowns.
And what about those humans who are still on the factory floor? The ability to keep them at safe distances from one another depends on the type of operation. A modern-day bottling line might require no more than two or three people to manage it, with no more than 10 in the whole plant. Other more manual operations, such as those found in discrete manufacturing environments, might still require workers standing shoulder to shoulder. In such cases, employers must provide adequate personal protective equipment, and institute strict safety measures for governing all interactions. In worst-case scenarios, operations might have to be curtailed, notwithstanding heavy demand for product. Yoskovitz cites one company whose production lines were so closely placed that the manufacturer had to shut down every other line, slashing capacity in half, to ensure that workers were maintaining proper distancing.
So is the “lights-out” model the answer after all? If so, says Yoskovitz, “it will take us a long time to get there.” Many consumer goods production lines are already heavily automated, but people are still needed to perform maintenance and tasks such as loading raw materials into the machines. “Find a robot that does that,” Yoskovitz says, “and you’re basically lights-out.”
Still, he insists, that’s not the goal with most manufacturing operations today, no matter how automated. “Our goal is not to replace people,” he says. “It’s to provide them with the right insights to reduce waste.” And, over the longer term, define that individual’s indispensable role in the factory, whatever that might be.
“Instead of someone running around to write down the pressure on the gate, how do you do that automatically, and retrain that person with a higher-level skill?” asks Yoskovitz. In addition, businesses are already looking beyond the current recession to a time when they’ll be struggling once more to attract human talent. Their answer will be a combination of automation to further reduce the need for people, and better opportunities for those who remain. At least, in the more distant future, until the lights go out completely.
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