One of the iconic stories around automation integration failure is that of General Motors (GM) at its Lordstown Assembly plant. In 1972 the union workforce went on strike in response to the General Motors Assembly Division’s (GMAD) "Gestapo" management approach. The press wrote that workers took to a guerrilla assault on the company by vandalizing cars as they progressed through the assembly line. While employees may have done some, most of the damage was likely the result of GM's five-billion-dollar automation investment failure led by then CEO Roger Smith. GM and Smith had responded to union dissatisfaction with an impulse to replace them with a "bet on fancy, futuristic but unproven technologies while undervaluing its workers." Treating employees as an inhumane element of its automation integration contributed to the overall downfall of this initiative.
"So whether it's augmenting more limited staff with robots to perform routine tasks, or automating a process formerly executed by human workers, robots are stepping IN to the workplace, not ON human toes." – Molly Gardner
Robot-ready: Adopting a new generation of industrial robots shares many forms of robotic applications. Fixed and caged robots are stationary for traditional assembly, die casting, drilling, painting, picking, packing, riveting, sorting, and welding operations. Collaborative robots can work with machine operators to automate repetitive, dangerous, and monotonous tasks to support in-plant transport, materials handling, point-of-sale assembly, product and asset inspection, and robotic 3D printing. Collaborative autonomous mobile robots provide automated palletizing, in-plant transportation, product and shelf warehouse scanning, and robot materials handling. Additional forms include crewless aerial drones for payloads under 15 pounds, asset inspection, asset management, autonomous data mapping, containment detection, inventory tracking and control, low payloads, and surveillance. The final application to share is robotic exoskeletons worn by operators to augment physical performance through carrying, gripping, and lifting. Overall, a wide variety of robotics forms are helpful in many ways to support production operations.
This blog recently focused on other aspects of Industry 4.0, including the topics of the creation age, additive manufacturing, and the Industrial Internet of Things. Industrial robots are another aspect of Industry 4.0, but one that represents a technology that some will attempt to use to replace humans. I instead recommend using robots to assist humans in keeping them safe and free from harm while increasing their productivity. In addition to the work of engineers to develop production lines with an increase in robotization, there should be a proper focus that allows humans to:
• Have a sense of greater motivation where management values the intellectual aspects they bring to the work.
• Derive greater satisfaction from a job well done.
• Lessen the current fatigue they are experiencing.
• Effectively address potential cognitive load, demand issues, and general psychological concerns.
• Correctly resolve human adaptation problems.
Organizations must seriously consider and address the impact of robotics integration on their workforce to avoid similar negative consequences faced by GM and others with a history of failing to consider the human impact of automation integrations.
A highly evolving state of robotics continues to advance toward previously unseen capabilities. An example is an IndustryWeek article on developing technology that mimics a human hand's touch. Unfortunately, the forecast for the development of this function is at least five years from becoming commercially viable. However, the potential to use piezoelectric effect-based sensors stacked in piezo resistive flexible films to replicate human touch would greatly expand robotic applications across various industries. Robots will continue to become more like humans, but hopefully, we will never lose the ability to be humane to our workforces.
There is a viable intersection for manufacturers of their current operations and integrating robotics to move the organization toward the desired future. Simultaneously, the work is not for the faint of heart when implementing sophisticated technology. However, it will solve declining interest in low-end production work, increase employee productivity, reduce repetitive use injuries, and enhance safety if done with an appropriate emphasis on the human impact of change.
The individual interested in building a company with radical humanism can learn more on the topic in Tim Leberecht’s 4 ways to build a human company in the age of machines TEDx Talk. First, you will learn why we "should not kill the orange balloons" and instead do the unnecessary. He also shares why we should create intimacy, be ugly, and remain incomplete.
I sincerely appreciate individuals like Leberecht who work to remind us that our work's emotional and social aspects are essential if we want to motivate and inspire our employees. We must move away from the mentality that humans are to be treated as if they are robots if we are to integrate robotics into manufacturing facilities successfully.
Next week's blog will explore the benefits of integrating embedded technology into manufacturing environments, allowing them to produce superior products that align with the humanist manufacturing framework.
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