The change in the manufacturing industry has been a common discussion topic in recent literature. Advancements in technology is the dominant theme, but what about the people who are working in the industry and are part of this large shift towards smart manufacturing? I have decided to look into the operator’s position and the change to their job role. Firstly, I was surprised to discover that the change in the role has already gained its own term – Operator 4.0. So what is Operator 4.0? I was lucky enough to find a paper written by Romero et al. who described the term as a smart worker that collaborates and is aided by robots and machines as necessary, this way empowering the operator with new tools. As proposed by the authors in a different paper – titled ‘Towards an Operator 4.0 Typology: A Human-Centric Perspective on the Fourth Industrial Revolution Technologies’ – there are different ways that technology will be able to assist the human workers (figure below) creating different types of enhancements, from physical support aiding handling of heavy objects to health monitoring that could warn of increased stress.
Different types of operator enhancement as proposed by Romero et al. (2016)2
And although these ideas seem like they are still a while away, some applications are already used in other industries. For example, a company called ‘Roam Robotics’ (www.roamrobotics.com) have created a sensor-equipped exoskeleton suit to reduce the load on your knees when skiing or snowboarding. Although specifically designed for the recreational industry, it could be used in manufacturing to assist operators with manual lifting tasks, as well as potentially help those who are disabled or older, allowing them to efficiently do their jobs. I believe that is a great example of technology empowering its users. Another example could be the wearable devices that are currently popular in the healthy-lifestyle sector, such as heart rate monitors, activity trackers and smart watches. Their application in manufacturing could provide essential health information to the user as well as their supervisors, and alert for increased levels of stress or workload. There is of course the question of how much monitoring would be reasonable and does not affect the privacy of a person, but the prospects of technology empowering and assisting the operators make Industry 4.0 a significantly different change to previous industrial revolutions.
In my PhD, as part of the DigiTop project I aim to investigate people’s relationship with new technology from a cognitive perspective. The overload of new devices and systems will mean that they need additional skills and aid to help them complete their tasks. For this, information and the way it is presented and interacted with will play a significant role and will therefore be the focus of my PhD work. Being a part of the DigiTop project allows me to bring human factors research to Industry 4.0, which is important as people still remain a core element to the manufacturing process.
University of Nottingham