Advanced Manufacturing in the Augmented Age

by Kevin Madden

Much of the discussion surrounding artificial intelligence and robotics, especially when it comes to Ontario manufacturing, pushes the narrative that humans are losing their jobs to machines. As Trillium’s Managing Director, Paul Boothe, writes in an op-ed for Maclean’s magazine published last December, the focus should not be on the jobs that are lost, but on the new jobs being created and the skills workers need to succeed at those jobs.

Many, if not all, of these new jobs will involve humans working alongside machines in some fashion. Whether it is a worker on the shop floor assembling a product with the help of a collaborative robot or an engineer at her desk digitally designing a prototype using simulation software, exponential technologies are rapidly being integrated into the workplace. This human-technology integration is making workers more efficient and revolutionizing the things workers are capable of.

The incredible inventions of intuitive AI | Maurice Conti  via TED Ideas worth spreading

In a TED Talk (see above) given last year, Maurice Conti expands on this idea, arguing that human beings have entered the “Augmented Age”. By this he means that we are in an era where technologies help us think, manufacture, and connect to the world around us. He goes on to highlight some of the different ways human activities are being augmented by technology in manufacturing and in daily life.

The first aspect of augmentation Conti discusses is what he calls “Cognitive Augmentation”. This refers to computational systems which help humans think. As an example of cognitive augmentation in manufacturing, Conti describes a computer analyzing a human-made product design and determining whether or not it is optimal. The computer does this by using artificial intelligence and machine learning, which use algorithms to analyze extensive data points and reach a conclusion. The fascinating part about this application is that it is not replacing the need for human-designed products. Instead, it is simply offering feedback so humans can improve upon their design capabilities. Conti notes that computers are not yet at a point where they can complete this task efficiently, but they are getting very close.

Second, Conti talks about the type of augmentation most familiar to manufacturers: robotics. Instead of the fenced-in, isolated robotics cells common to many traditional manufacturers, he talks about collaborative robots. These robots work together with humans during the manufacturing process. They can be spoken to, directed by, and touched by humans in order to complete a given task such as drilling or assembly.

The major benefit of collaborative robots in manufacturing is that they combine the skills unique to humans with the skills unique to robots. Allowing robots to take over the exhausting and monotonous parts of a task frees up humans to better leverage their unique skills. For instance, humans tend to be better at critical thinking, creativity, and interacting with people, while robots are stronger and have better endurance. The result is workers in manufacturing plants being able to complete tasks more effectively and efficiently, while at the same time not having to expend as much physical effort.

The final way humans are augmented by technology is through what Conti describes as a nervous system which connects everything together. Other phrases which refer to a similar idea are the digital ecosystem and digital thread. He talks about using technology to gain data about products which are already out in the field. An example he gives is enabling toy manufacturers to determine whether the toy they sold is actually being used by a child or tucked away in a box in someone’s basement. If manufacturers have access to this kind of data, they will be able to produce better products that are catered more to the desires of consumers.

From a manufacturing standpoint, Conti does a good job of highlighting the ways humans can be augmented by technology to drastically improve their effectiveness in the workplace. These Industry 4.0 technologies will certainly make some jobs obsolete, but they will also create exciting new jobs and free humans up to focus on the skills with which they add the most value. Ontario manufacturing employers and employees alike should be exploring ways to capitalize on this wave of human-technology augmentation.

If you have any thoughts or comments about the Augmented Age or Conti’s talk, please tweet us @TrilliumMfg or send us an email at info@trilliummfg.ca.

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