Manufacturers Firing Robots, Re-hiring Humans

robotsWhile manufacturers continue to use robots to automate processes and boost efficiencies, some still see the human worker as a superior resource for its flexibility and ability to adapt.

Paul Ryznar, President and CEO of OPS Solutions in Wixom, Mich., told Forbes.com that some manufacturers have lately been ditching their robots and in favor of putting more humans back on the factories floor. As digitization and consumers are demanding more choices and variation in products, there’s a growing need for more flexibility on the factory floor. Even highly automated systems need to be programmed and adjusted, and once manufacturers exceed a level of variation, robots’ unmatched ability to handle repetitive tasks becomes less of an asset.

“The human ability to think critically and adapt to changing circumstances on the fly is beneficial in an environment where near infinite variations of certain products make it logistically or economically impractical for robots to perform tasks with a similar degree of customization,” Ryznar said.

“Even in the most automated factories, humans still sit at the top.”

Fast Company noted that while much of the auto industry is shifting towards robotic-enabled automation, Toyota has placed human workers at the forefront of its own automation efforts. At its plant in Georgetown, Ky., workers are doing some of the less obviously essential tasks that manufacturers tend to automate. This includes things like visual inspections of things like tanks and fuel lines. Wil James, President of Toyota Motor Manufacturing in Kentucky, told Fast Company that while machines are good for repetitive things, “they can’t improve their own efficiency or the quality of their work. Only people can.” Tom Shoup, COO of Honda’s manufacturing unit in Ohio, told Automotive News that “we can’t find anything to take the place of the human touch and human senses like sight, hearing and smell.”

Joe Kaeser, President and CEO of Siemens AG, told Time that while machines have the ability to assemble things faster than humans, they lack the domain expertise and knowledge to solve problems and optimize the factory floor. And Ron Harbour, a partner in Oliver Wyman’s automotive practice, told Forbes.com that on flexible lines, such as automobiles which need as many as 55,000 parts, only human workers can adjust to the changing needs and innovations. In some cases, replacing a human worker with a robot can require two workers to program and manage the robot. “In the end, the most automated plants too often fall into the bottom quartile of plants based on productivity,” Harbour said. “People are the most flexible form of automation. They can do anything. You just need to train them.”

Even in the most automated factories, humans still sit at the top. Yan-David Erlich, founder of collaboration company Parsable, told Industry Week that while it may appear that machines run the factories, it’s ultimately the humans that are in control. To fully tap into the potential of Industry 4.0, companies will need to invest in tools, training and processes to ensure their human workers can perform more important work. “It is a fallacy to think that industrial robots, AI and machines will eliminate the need for industrial workers. By placing too much credence on this fantasy we risk neglecting our most important resource – human potential,” Erlich said.

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