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Technology enabled Industry 4.0 is people-centric

The first impression of Industry-4.0 (I4.0) is all about value creation in business through technology and only technology. It encompasses operations that are robot driven, delivering higher productivity, efficiency, safety and asset utilization. The IOT (internet of things) determinant of I4.0 facilitates machines and material to interact using sensors and RFID (Radio frequency identification) technology to deliver error free processes, improve OEE (Overall equipment effectiveness), ensure single-piece flow and enhanced inventory turn ratio. The power of autonomous operating system coupled with AI and ML (Artificial Intelligence & Machine language) in I4.0 make intelligent and smart decisions without human intervention to consistently deliver first time right and always right products & processes, optimize operations and even enable customization. The Big data analytics in conjunction with cloud computing in smart factories facilitate in accurate forecast, enhance product life cycle, optimize processes, reduce unit product cost and nudge innovation. The cyber physical systems of I4.0 integrate computation, networking and physical process in the shop floor to improve the OEE and optimize the system inventory.

In short, it apparently appears that technology has replaced human beings and value creating shop floors are delivering without people. This is far from truth. It would be the biggest mistake if we start believing that smart factories will have only machines and material moving with no operators and managers around tomorrow. We have witnessed the impact of the shortage of operators in factories, teaching without physical teachers in class rooms, patients without doctors by their stalled logistics due to absence of truck-drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic period. Importance of people will continue to remain in the technology-driven environment too. Von Scheel, the father of I4.0, says that I4.0 is all about people – “Manufacturing is the stage on which Industry 4.0 is playing out, but human beings are at the center.” The strategic transformational endeavor of I4.0 in an organization is by the people (management & employee) and for the people (customers and stake holders) as it’s outcomes are affecting human beings for a better tomorrow.

The operators get tired of the repetitive operations in the shop floors, therefore, they need to be supported / assisted by robots – COBOTS (Collaborative robots). It complements the operators in their physical task for a better delivery of goods and services. The variability in operations is large and often different decisions are taken by operators. Therefore, the mergers of robotic actions and human minds will always give superior results. Human-less shop floors, hence, cannot be envisaged.

Every problem in the shop floor is different and requires data for analysis before solving it. Even after AI & ML application this process become difficult to solve through technology alone. There is no substitute to human mind and knowledge for problem solving and hence they cannot be substituted even in smart factories which also experience troubles. However, their role will be redefined in the smart factory. Mentally creative roles are going to increase and would witness decreasing physical work. Digitalization can throw up large data for analysis but problem solving will have to be done by human beings.

The specialized machine operators of yesterdays will now be I4.0 monitors working as equal partners with many smart machines and material networking processes, preparing various operations, issuing instructions and resolving problems. The smart operators with smart machines and processes will have the opportunity to harness flexibility, scalability, utilization and responsiveness.

The determinants of I4.0 systems shall proactively trigger the need for optimal maintenance of high-tech machines and equipment but the action thereby would call for maintenance experts. Therefore, the need for decision maker, problem solver and innovator would continue to be the most wanted expertise in the smart factory. Value add will continue to be recognized in employee skill. Continuous improvement and innovation in the supply chain process will be the most sought-after competence.

Like any other industrial revolution, the typical smart operator of I4.0 will need the following competencies – interaction with new digital technology, large data analysis, dynamic problem solving and innovative thinking. Delivered success in these areas would provide huge job satisfaction and performance. To search, retain and ensure relevant growth of these knowledgeable and innovative operators will be a challenge.

In summary, I4.0 is aimed at supplementing and not superseding humans, it is facilitating in finding the optimal balance between efficiency and productivity through human and technology working together. Nothing can stall I4.0, even when there are many relevant unanswered essential questions with it. The combination of human skill and technology in I4.0 will reach another level of value addition soon. Let us gear up for it now and have no fears to embrace it. It would continue to evolve but technology will not replace human beings.

The article has been written by Dr Ravindra Ojha, Professor of Operations at Great Lakes Institute of Management Gurgaon


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