I, Cobot: Future collaboration of man and machine

As digital technology ushers in a fourth industrial revolution, Thilo Stieber asks what it means for the workforce. Will we all be working with robots?

Ever since the moment in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ when HAL started misbehaving, mankind has been wary of delegating too much control to computers.

And yet for manufacturers the message today is to do exactly that – or face becoming extinct very quickly.

Thilo Stieber, Head of Manufacturing, Retail and Transport Market of Atos
Thilo Stieber, head of Manufacturing, Retail & Transport Market, Atos.

Smart manufacturing – the integration of different processes within the value chain through IT – is being dubbed ‘the fourth industrial revolution’, or Industry 4.0.

Why? Because it will transform the way manufacturing is structured and the jobs that make it happen.

Picture the assembly floor of a car factory staffed entirely by machines. That’s nothing new, but these machines are interacting with human workers – they’re Cobots (collaborative robots).

Not only that, they’re talking to the cars they’re making, which seem to be applying intelligent decisions as to which assembly station they go to next. ‘I need my wheels screwed on but the wheel machine’s busy so I’ll go and get my bumpers fitted first’: that sort of thing.

In addition, because of product diversification and expectations from customers to have personalized products, cars may be slightly different to each another in terms of accessories, colour, even design. This is taken even further at truck manufacturers, where the number of possible variants make every single truck ‘unique’.

These bespoke components are being printed to orders fed in by a computer that’s taking instructions from a design department 5,000 miles away, which in turn is being informed by a depository of data gathered from end users all around the world. It’s all happening with seamless efficiency. Productivity is up, quality is impeccable and the customer is more satisfied than ever before.

Integrated processes

This somewhat Utopian vision is what Industry 4.0 will look like and, to a certain extent, it’s happening already.

At Siemens’ Amberg Electronics Factory, which makes Simatic logic control systems, the products control their own assembly. All the processes along the value chain are integrated via IT to enable them to work out the most efficient workflow, quickly respond to design changes and iron out any issues before they become a problem. It’s the digital equivalent of regular team meetings.

Since converting to this model, Amberg has increased its productivity to one product per second throughout the working year, reduced its failure rate to almost zero and cut costs. But perhaps most significant of all, certainly for those who fear the human impact of any industrial revolution, it has done so with barely any change in the size of its staff.

By retraining its employees, Siemens has simply redeployed its Amberg workforce into positions of control rather than assembly. Could it be that this industrial revolution is actually going to improve the day to day experience for workers?

Robot Hand Shaking Human Hand
Could it be that this industrial revolution is actually going to improve the day to day experience for workers?

Wolfgang Kowalsky, adviser to the European Trade Union Confederation, thinks it could if handled responsibly: “It’s normal business to upskill people in the use of digital tools. In companies where trade unions are well anchored and where social dialogue is functioning, indications are that it can

be an opportunity for enriched work and a better work-life balance. It is progress, it is unstoppable, but it has to be shaped in a way that we avoid a generational gap.”

So what sort of jobs will the manufacturing workforce be doing in 10 or 20 years’ time? Thilo Stieber, Atos’ VP Portfolio & Innovation, Global Manufacturing, Retail and Transport: Luca Benporath, VP Global PLM, Manufacturing; and Davide Criscione, Global Head of Discrete Manufacturing, all believe that in order to answer that question you must first understand the context of the revolution.

Smart products, smart services

“The big story is about globalisation, more competition, more educated consumers, more regulations,” says Stieber. “For manufacturers it’s getting more and more difficult to differentiate their product features to customers. Customer experience is so important.

“You have to excite the customer through smart products and smart services. The way you provide these smart services and products brings us directly to business reinvention and enabling companies to transform their business models into digital business.

“If we’re looking for the revolution then the main driver is decentralised production. The customer is demanding more. Everybody wants their own customised product. And all the operational efficiencies being provided by so-called SMAC technologies – social, mobility, analytics and Cloud – are the consequence of a new environment, which is forcing manufacturers to rethink their business models and way of operations.”

Automate UK

The AABTLN’s annual conference, Automate UK – will provide the opportunity to hear from experts in the industry about utilising the technology available to manufacturers now as well as looking forward to future trends that need to be considered when investing in this technology.

With innovations in robot safety, remote monitoring, collaborative equipment right through to predictive maintenance the world of industrial automation is evolving at a faster pace than ever.

Find out more here.

The ultimate in decentralised production is 3D or additive printing. “Imagine if you could buy the spare parts you need and print them directly at your store or at home,” says Stieber. “What an impact for the supply chain!”

“It’s not fantasy saying that in 20 years’ time, car manufacturers will print their cars rather than assembling them. This is the future,” says Benporath. “This is a technology that did not exist until five or ten years ago, which is opening a whole new horizon to companies.”

How companies respond will determine whether they survive.

Criscione says the manufacturing industry needs to be ready for a wholesale change to its business model as the capacity to produce goods moves out of the factory and into the home or high street.

Devastating change

“The huge revolution will be when the printers are cheap enough so customers can find a good printer round the corner and can print the products themselves. You will have a total decoupling. Today companies like Nike and adidas are mainly marketing companies – marketing and product design.

“This is going to be pushed even more to a point where customers can download the shoes. You can imagine how devastating this change will be. For the manufacturing industry it’s going to mean a shift from manufacturing knowledge into design and somehow finding a way to protect the product, like you protect a song on YouTube.

“Look at what happened with the music industry. Something similar can happen here. You need to find a new business model that’s totally different.”

That means a workforce that’s less geared towards assembly and more focused on working with digital technology both in gathering end user data and creating bespoke products, delivered directly to the point of use.

“The jobs are going to be mainly in design, and not what we understand by design today: design of the pieces that you put inside and the possibilities you offer. It’s not about how you screw a wheel on the car, it’s about how the pieces are brought there and in which sequence they’re assembled. It’s more high level.”

Benporath agrees that designers will play an increasingly important role as manufacture becomes decentralized, but also points to the importance of sales and after-sales functions in gathering and analysing that precious customer data which will then be fed back to design to improve their products.

Closer to customers

“A particular issue for B2B companies that do not deal direct with customers is how to catch and gather customer data. I was talking to engineers at an automotive company and they were telling me, ‘You know, my frustration today is that when I’m asked to make a change to my car I know nothing about the reasons why this change is required. Is it the customer request? Is it a technical failure? Is it a management decision? If I knew where this came from I could probably give more value and do my job better.”

Social media, mobile applications and the Cloud are making it much easier for businesses to get close to their customers and gather and store the data they need to keep their products and services competitive. But it needs the human touch to give that data value and make sure it’s fed into the value chain.

Customers are more powerful and more demanding than ever before and Industry 4.0 is about enabling businesses to respond with maximum agility. That’s where the IT comes in. It’s not about replacing man with machine, it’s about man and machine working in seamless harmony right across the value chain.

Thilo Stieber, head of Manufacturing, Retail and Transport Market of Atos, the international leader in digital services. This article is an extract from “ascent – views from our digital future” – a thought leadership publication by Atos. ascent.atos.net

Stieberis responsible at Atos for the Manufacturing, Retail and Transport market in APAC, in addition to his global market responsibility for Portfolio & Innovation. In his roles he supports companies in improving & transforming their business from a product to a more customer centric approach by using new digital technologies like cloud, big data & advanced analytics, Internet of Things and mobility.

Prior to this Stieber held a range of global management roles with a strong focus on developing new innovative business strategies & solutions. His expertise is based on serving for many years European & US manufacturing companies globally in the area of Supply-Chain Management and Production. During his career he built up a strong international business skills by working many years abroad throughout Europe, US, South America and Asia.