New relationships between humans and machines

It’s not about humans versus machines, the future will be about how to create a system involving the best of both.
When thinking about the factory of the future, or Industry 4.0 to use a term coined in Germany, we might first imagine halls of robots without any people in sight. It may even create anxieties that advancing manufacturing into the digital age will lead to a huge loss of jobs. But so far in our involvement in the industrial evolution we’re yet to see this happen. In fact, we have seen factories becoming ever more productive with the same workforce, and an interesting shift in roles, tasks, and job descriptions. We believe that humans will play a key role in production in the near future and most likely also in the long run. In our opinion, machines will never be able to replace the qualities of humans. Here’s why.
The role of design in Industry 4.0

Improvements on a single type of machine have reached limits in certain areas already, such as tractors in agriculture (or even the screen resolution on your smart phone). But it’s important to remember that having a faster or more powerful machine doesn’t necessarily give you larger productivity gains, due to the amount of time pre-operational processes and supporting activities now take.

Networked distribution and nowadays often disjunct systems, such as order management and machine utilization, bears much larger potentials for speeding up processes. The same is true for human decision-making, be it order management on the shop floor or price calculations based on current utilization. Thinking in overarching systems, bringing information together is what we call service design.

Human-to-machine communication

Smart manufacturing is often discussed as connecting machines and IT systems. Consequentially, IT departments and engineers are in the lead to drive this topic further. With a focus on machines they expect to reduce the impact of those notorious human errors.

Unique human qualities should find their way into the data systems as well. Think of the sensory system when it comes to certain quality checks. Think of “sanity checks” and reasoning when discrepancies between states in IT systems and the physical world are detected – when building systems with the employee in mind, this information can be used as valuable input for the larger system. Also consider the communication and spontaneous team formation needed to solve unexpected problems. Duplicating improvisation capabilities in automated systems is a tedious task (at best). It is far more promising to make sure that employees and these systems communicate well to make the best use of each one’s qualities.

Factory as a software system

As manufacturing systems become more interlinked, more data is processed and decisions are taken by software systems for a smarter, more flexible production. These systems often work in the background and the information towards the individual, especially on the factory floor, is sparse or just badly designed. The system quickly appears untransparent or even patronizing, just as computer systems did in the 80s.

This can seriously hamper the ability of individuals to take informed decisions, neglecting available “human computing power”. It may also discourage people to provide input about issues in their area of work that would improve the overall data basis.

These are just a few of the reasons why we need man-machine interfaces just as much as machine-machine ones. We also think that this needs to go further than just the frequently quoted “control rooms” where few people orchestrate the entire factory. As interaction designers, building these bridges and “interfacing with humans” is our daily business. And while the primary goal is to increase productivity or flexibility, focusing on integrated man-machine systems will also increase the joy of use for the individuals on the factory floor.