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How to create a collaborative and adaptive workplace that embraces robots and automation

Nov. 7, 2022
Start small, scale fast and think beyond the way you are doing things because there may be a better way

Harmony between humans and machines will revolutionize the workplace. One of the most successful installations of mobile robots began with one robot that delivered donuts and bagels. The company bought a fleet, but they only brought in one robot at first. It played music, too. People got used to it and loved when the robot would come around. When it finally began taking on tasks, the employees welcomed it into the workforce, rather than worry suspiciously about how it would take their jobs and replace them.

The very nature of work is far from ideal. Sixty percent of work-related health problems are due to musculoskeletal disorders, while stress, depression and anxiety collectively count for another 16%. These issues, which cost employers around $2.4 billion a year due to employee absence, are often caused by onerous manual activities that could be replaced with autonomous and collaborative processes. By laying the foundation for harmony between humans and machines, Omron is creating a future in which workers are empowered, fulfilled and able to use their full creativity.

“When I started doing this, there was a lot more suspicion about robots,” said   How can we promote harmony between human and machines, starting from the time of implementation? Here is an effective process: Think beyond, start small, and scale fast.   Mark Noschang, robotics engineering supervisor at Omron,   who spoke about creating a collaborative and adaptive workplace at Omron Automation’s OPEN 2022 event, co-located in Chicago, Cincinnati, Dallas and Detroit. “In reality, perceptions have changed drastically. The work environment has changed over the years, especially in the past two years. We’re trying to move subtasks to automation.”

Since the pandemic started, an estimated 5 million jobs have been left unfilled, and manufacturing jobs are the second greatest contributor to this list. Today, setting up and operating a new manufacturing system requires more workers with high skillsets, such as software programmers and engineers.

Noschang pointed out that the period also saw the lowest participation of women in the workforce since 1970 because of childcare issues due to closed daycares facilities and schools. “Fewer people were doing the work,” he explained. “There’s also been a rash of early retirement. It’s the great resignation. People are retiring early or quitting and finding a better job or going back to school.” This has opened a bona fide need for automation to replace the workforce that’s vanished.

The demand path of manufacturing is moving in the following trajectory: from mass production to targeted production, and finally to customization. Today’s customers want personalized products and services more than ever before. In order to increase flexibility in manufacturing, we must allow workers to redeploy to accommodate new products and optimize the production process. We must also facilitate their contributions by supporting knowledge transfer from skilled experts to the young generation.

Historically, the production process has often been cumbersome and repetitive. It can be difficult for employees to repeat the same manual task over and over for a long period of time. When workers reached the exhaustion point, they are more than likely to make mistakes. Additionally, they might search for ways to ease their workloads, even if these “solutions” are likely to reduce productivity and/or quality, like skipping process steps or slowing the operation speed.

“We’re trying to rethink operations. We’re working to educate our employees to understand that there are other tools to help them be more efficient,“ explained Noschang. To improve process and production efficiency and ensure quality, we need to adopt new technologies and tools. Adding robots to manufacturing facilities is one of the leading strategies. Once robots take away the dangerous tasks and monotonous tasks, workers can focus on creative activities that stimulate their intellect.

However, when introducing new technologies to the existing production setting and process, we often experience some degree of rejection. How can we promote harmony between human and machines, starting from the time of implementation? Here is an effective process: Think beyond, start small, and scale fast. First of all, think beyond the way that you are currently operating. What you have been doing up until now might not be the best practices for production growth, and you may be closer to finding a better way than you realize.

Start small by implementing a few technologies and operating with very simple tasks. Make sure that workers understand the solutions and feel comfortable with them. If they trust the new technology, they will be able to make it work more effectively. Offer enough time for workers and machines to work along together comfortably, and then you can scale up fast to accommodate greater throughput and greater product variety while opening up more options for further transformation.  

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