March 12, 2016 was a landmark in human history. Google’s AlphaGo artificial intelligence has beaten Lee Sedol, the world champion in the game of Go. The game is so complex that it was previously thought as impossible for any computer to beat human intuition. The most notable step occurred in move 37 of match 2. The computer was able to “create” a move that no human had thought of in the 2000 year history of the game. Many believe that move signifies the beginning of a new relationship between machine and human.
Other than Go, computers are now taking over many complex decision-making tasks. An example is the driverless car. The date is not far for such to become a commonplace reality on our roads and highways. With this in mind, I was asked recently about the role of humans in manufacturing. Is the driverless factory in our future?
My answer to this question is, “Perhaps someday, but not for a very long time.” Cars are one thing, but as complexity increases, the shortcomings of automation become apparent. Not only is manufacturing a highly complex and dynamic environment, involving multiple entities, materials, and processes, but it’s actually increasing in complexity as a result of the latest Industrial Revolution.
Here are three reasons why I think growing manufacturing complexity will keep humans in the loop for a long time to come.
Closer integration between design, engineering and manufacturing
Mass customization is driving down time-to-market while driving up product variety. To cope with such market demand, design, engineering and manufacturing can no longer be operated in silos. Instead, increasingly complex, multilateral and multi-directional interactions between these functions are required. So, while we might imagine an automated factory producing parts according to a fixed set of specifications, it’s clear that the interaction with other disciplines is beyond the capability of automation.
More complex value chains
Just as manufacturing interactions are becoming more complex, so are the value chains. Innovation used to occur largely behind the four walls of an enterprise. But in our interconnected world of today, this model is giving way to a more open approach to innovation that involves complex relationships of global players across enterprises, industries, and consumers.
What we’re really talking about here is creativity, a uniquely human ability. What’s more, in the realm of manufacturing innovation, we’re talking about collaborative creativity between people in different functions and organizations. It takes a human to understand the needs of human customers, and to develop innovative, practical ideas that can be acted upon by the extended enterprise. In fact, I would argue that instead of decreasing the need for human involvement, advancements in technology will drive a greater need for intelligent, connected, and informed human decision-making. Automation can drive processes and machinery. It can even drive cars. But it can’t drive innovation!
More rapid and continuous improvement cycle
Automation is good at delivering a fixed set of repeatable tasks. It is also good at producing data that can help reveal where improvements are needed. For example, analysis of process data can reveal a shortcoming in manufacturing. Customer feedback data can reveal problems with a design. Quality data can shed light on supplier issues.
But at the end of the day, data is static and unable to enact any improvements. Automation can help point the way to improvement, but it requires the creative and innovative human mind to envision, design, and enact those improvements in a global, extended enterprise.
Humans at the center
For all of the above reasons, I believe humans not only will be an essential part of this industrial Revolution, but will be at the very center of it. Manufacturers should be thinking of how automation will enhance the human role, not replace it.
As the 4th industrial Revolution advances, enterprises will increasingly need technology platforms that facilitate human interactions. This will be the only way to drive the necessary collaboration between science, system engineering, design, simulation, and manufacturing operations in the highly complex manufacturing environments of the future.
As for what happened on March 12. 2016, with move 37, the machine was able to “create” a move that was then beyond human capability. Interestingly, move 37 inspired move 78 in match 4, where Lee won the game with a move that again no human has thought of. The new relationship between human and machine is not one of replacement, but of mutual inspiration.
Technology will bring greater and greater automation, but far from replacing humans, the factory of the future will depend on the close collaboration between man and machine with people who are not just in the loop, but in the driver’s seat!
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