Although it was once thought that the growth in industrial automation would lead to jobs becoming less skilled, often the reverse is true. Modern manufacturing systems are so complex that considerable skill is needed to operate them.
‘Even very advanced machines cannot work completely autonomously; there is still a strong need for a human to supervise them,’ says Valeria Villani, of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. ‘Workers are required to interact with very complex systems, sometimes under difficult and stressful conditions, such as a noisy environment or tight schedules.’
Villani was technical manager of the EU-funded INCLUSIVE project which focused on the needs of people who have difficulties working with automated machinery. The demands of such jobs can rule out opportunities for older or less-educated workers or those with disabilities or impairments.
So, how can they be helped to work in the world of industrial automation? ’The goal of the INCLUSIVE project was to create an inclusive work environment,’ Villani says.
Key to the project was adaptive automation: the idea that machines should accommodate the needs of their human operators rather than the other way around.
Typically, operators interact with modern industrial machinery via a touchscreen, known as a human-machine interface (HMI). ‘We proposed to change the behaviour of the machine and the HMI according to the condition of the worker,’ Villani explains.
The new HMI developed in the project was trialled at three companies: Silverline, a Turkish manufacturer of kitchen appliances; SCM Group, an Italian manufacturer of woodworking machines; and Elettric80, an Italian manufacturer of automated guided vehicles for use in warehouses.
The HMI comprises three modules. The first assesses the abilities and needs of individual workers. This is done by constructing a profile based on age and experience but also including real-time monitoring of perceptual and cognitive skills, physiological stress and actual performance in operating the machine.
Adaptations of the HMI can range from simple changes in font size to adjust for eyesight to limits on the level of functionality the user is allowed to control. In some cases, the system suggests default settings for machine parameters. In others, the types of alarms signalled to the operator are tailored to his or her competence in being able to deal with them.
The third module focuses on training and support. Virtual reality systems help users learn how to use the machines while real-time monitoring detects when operators are becoming fatigued or making mistakes. The HMI then offers suggestions and guidance.
Collaborating with machines
In a survey of 53 shop-floor workers who took part in the trials, 80 % said that INCLUSIVE helped them to work better with their machines and to be more productive, getting tasks done faster and with fewer mistakes.
Although the project finished in September 2019, eight potential products have been identified for commercialisation, including methodologies, software and the adaptive HMI platform. One of the partners, SCM Group, is ‘fully restyling’ its user interfaces, Villani says, building on ideas and findings from the project, while others are continuing to work on the innovations.
Villani sees industry already moving towards a more collaborative form of automation. ‘While machines have their own advantages – they are very precise and reliable and can work 24 hours a day – the soft skills of human workers are important as well and very difficult to replicate in machines. Uniting these different capabilities could be key for industrial practice in the future.’