Keeping manual workers at the centre of Industry 4.0

The world is abuzz with talk of Industry 4.0, but there still seems to be some confusion about what this new industrial revolution could mean for the world of work.

In 2013, not long after the term Industry 4.0 had been coined, an Oxford study proclaimed that 47 per cent of US employment was at risk of being made obsolete by computerisation. Since this time, multiple news stories have followed suit, with each passing week revealing yet another profession at peril.

The good news is that, while revolution always fosters change and there is no doubt that Industry 4.0 will bring about significant changes in how industrial workers perform their jobs, this does not necessarily involve a loss of human labour. In fact, for many of the companies embracing Industry 4.0, people remain at the centre of the industrial developments that are taking place.

The Bosch Rexroth plant in Homburg, which manufactures hydraulic valves for the mobile machinery market, is just one example of such a place in action. In 2013, the company made the decision to introduce Industry 4.0 on one specific manual production line that was struggling to keep up with demands in quality, cost and production time.

The company utilised Industry 4.0 philosophies of connectivity, open standards and the virtual representation of information while keeping factory workers at the heart of the process. The resulting pilot line allows for the semi-automatic production of an extensive product range – over 200 variants within six basic product types - without the need for technical or logistical setup tasks.

“To achieve such dramatic changes we set about adapting the production unit, setting up nine autonomous intelligent workstations that can quickly switch between products as required,” says Dr Matthias Möller, Director of the technology and process planning department at Bosch Rexroth’s Homburg plant.

The workstations are equipped with RFID chips for product control, with sensors collecting and analysing data as it flows along the production line. At each workstation, work steps for different product types are displayed using a technology called ActiveAssist – an aid for factory workers in manual assembly that uses a pick-to-light system, and checks all assemblies via a 3D camera.

As part of their place in the Industry 4.0 line, each worker carries a Bluetooth tag that stores the necessary information about them as an individual. This information is automatically transmitted to the assembly station, which can, for example, adjust workbenches to suit the worker, and display text to suit individual requirements of font size and language.

Also at play in the Homburg plant, is another piece of facilitative technology to aid in the smooth running of the whole production process. ActiveCockpit is an interactive manufacturing system which serves as the brain of the Industry 4.0 line, by collecting, filtering and visualising key data on an interactive whiteboard located at the front of the production line. ActiveCockpit not only aids in decision making and on the job efficiency, but also serves as a hub for managers and workers overviewing performance specifics during shift changeovers.

“Ultimately, the goal of Industry 4.0 is to produce smarter and resource-efficient factories which are more productive and competitive,” says Mike Lomax, electrification manager at Bosch Rexroth. “The advancements in technology mean the assembly line connects people, machines and products.”

For Bosch, the benefits of implementing Industry 4.0 in Homburg have been only too apparent. “We’ve already seen a 30 per cent stock reduction, eliminated set-up time, and achieved a 10 per cent output increase,” says Dr Möller. “This has resulted in an annual saving of €500,000.”

While Bosch is well known for its technological and industrial developments, it may come as a surprise to know that another key player at the cutting edge of robotics and automation is one of the UK’s best-known grocery retailers – Ocado.

The online shopping expert is one of the biggest technology companies in the UK, with several teams of data scientists, mechanical engineers, battery experts and research and development personnel working behind the scenes. As such, unlike other online retailers, they outsource a very limited amount of work, with the majority of machines and robotics that are used within the distribution centres produced in house.

They also boast the most advance grocery retail facility in the world in their newly opened facility in Andover – a non-descript warehouse which is home to an army of more than 1000 robots assembled around a ‘hive’ of produce cates. At the heart of the company’s developments, though, is the central distribution centre and research and development unit in Hatfield.

This facility alone delivers more than 150,000 grocery orders per day, and has acted as a test bench for Ocado’s operational concepts. Originally the company had a fairly traditional set up, in which workers were placed in pick aisles, and guided to the various items using a combination of on screen commands and light signals.

Since this time, the company have invested in two subsequent generations of goods-to-man picking systems, which seek to maximise worker comfort as well as overall efficiency and productivity. In the latest generation the warehouse essentially moves the shopping aisles to and from the worker, who selects product from boxes delivered to them via 25km of conveyor belt, and scans them using a super-fast barcode scanner.

The whole production line, from stock control through to the delivery vehicles, is managed by a sophisticated data management and AI system. Throughout the warehouse there are barcode scanners and other sensors mounted along the conveyors and inside the automated systems to track how goods and orders move around the warehouse. To run this operation the company use several control algorithms to dictate the flow of containers from area-to-area, as well as to move moves personal shoppers around the warehouse balancing personal shopper efficiency. The flow of containers into areas is also controlled to prevent build ups and gridlocking.

Overall, these developments have resulted in a 300 per cent efficiency improvement compared to the traditional picking operation. But, according the man behind the most recent developments, Sid Shaikh, head of engineering research and development at Ocado, this is just the beginning. “Robotics and AI technology are in our future,” he says, “Not just to enable personal shoppers to be more efficient, but to remove the need for troublesome tasks and heavy lifting.”

With the new plant in Andover now up and running, a further facility under construction at Erith in London, and an ever growing customer base the company is experiencing more success than ever, which can be put down, at least in part, to their use of automation, and has also lead to an increased demand for manual workers. Since production began in 2000, the company has grown to an employee base of over 12,000 people.

“There have been no job losses due to our use of robotics and automation,” says Shaikh. “We are growing.”

While the technology demonstrated by the likes of Ocado and Bosch Rexroth do not demonstrate pure automation as might be expected from a truly smart factory, for the time being these systems present the most appropriate solution to the growing demands of the industry. For now many of those even at the forefront of Industry 4.0 complete automation is not realistic, but technological developments are increasing productivity through physical and digital assistance systems, rather than the replacement of human labour.

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