What Augmentation Is (And What It Isn’t Yet)

AR/VR, cobots, metaverse, wearables and similar technology are high on hype but are not really making a difference on the shop floor. Here's what CEOs should really be focusing on.

The World Economic Forum’s Augmented Workforce Initiative (WEF 2022) correctly states that key drivers of augmentation include time efficiency, complexity, knowledge and skills gaps and (so far) finds that workforce augmentation offers a “radically new paradigm of workforce empowerment” that is people-centric, accessible and sustainable.

In principle, their definitions are useful: “Augmentation technologies are systems that interact with employees aiming to positively modify, complement, or augment their cognitive or physical abilities while performing a certain range of industrial activities on the shop floor, or being trained in industrial education contexts” (WEF 2022:11).

However, the Initiative is (unfortunately) prematurely stuck on the exact technology fix they claim to want to remove elsewhere in industry. In fact, augmentation technology is defined as AR/VR, smart devices, exoskeletons, wearables and cobots. CEOs must realize that while there’s nothing wrong with these technologies, and they should be explored, they are premature at present.

The executive perspective is therefore best served proceeding with the awareness that the path toward worker augmentation is a gradual one. The impact across the workforce in true manufacturing settings can only be achieved once the technologies in question reach maturity, industrial form factor (comfortable, lightweight, power and network requirements), and scalable price points (not prototype pricing aimed at first adopters). Augmentation can only impact skills by “improving activities, learning curves and employee satisfaction.” This particularly goes for physical skills such as manual inspection, work safety, product/material handling, maintenance and machine configuration. However, cognitive skills such as lean management, knowledge management, problem solving, process improvement and work independence are also important to augment. Both technologies and the workforce must be ready for them.

Right now, industry is in an experimental phase. That’s great, but what it means is not commonly understood among executive leaders around the world. If it was, we would be in a different place. The big R&D and pilot money would be going elsewhere.

While we are excited about the promise of augmentation, we are also realistic. Those leaders who are prematurely fascinated with the technology aspect (AR/VR, cobots, exoskeletons, goggles, the metaverse, wearables) are likely to be disappointed. These may be high on hype but are not really making a difference on the shop floor where paper still is a prevalent  production tool. Having said that, Tulip, for example, supports wearables and marries no-code with wearables. The most notable use case is line clearance, a standardized procedure in manufacturing for ensuring equipment and work areas are free of products, documents and materials from a previous process. Line clearance is most commonly used in regulated industries, such as pharmaceuticals, biotech, and food and beverage manufacturing.

Often, operators need the use of their hands and must take pictures with a wearable camera. These practical and basic use cases are a far cry from the perfectly rendered visions of AR we have been promised for 10 years that surely will take another few years to materialize.

At this time in the industrial worker augmentation journey, form factors are clunky, price points are too high, and many projects are stuck in pilot purgatory. The only exception to the rule is digital apps based on machine monitoring. Extracting data from existing (older) industrial machines is increasingly possible with new approaches. Deploying and harvesting simple data from rapidly commoditizing sensors running on faster and faster networks is now cost effective. However, advanced sensors that would truly transform industrial operations are still costly. With 5G the current upper limit for mobile networks, latency is removed, too.

Display technology mostly through consumer grade monitors and, to some extent, apps displayed on cell phones (or messaging sent to them) are prevalent. However, most cell phones are too small to be useful in a factory environment. You might have dirty hands, gloves, or otherwise have a very different need than the consumer electronics manufacturing industry has been customizing for. All of this needs to be addressed before factory operations can move at software speed.

When will industry get to augmented lean? We certainly will not get there if there is no innovation support for the kinds of interfaces that industry demands. It is quite a shocker to realize how little of the creative force of startups, corporate innovation efforts, electronics user interface efforts, and governmental stimulus funds go toward industrial technology with the frontline worker in mind.

One exception is the Industry 4.0 Human Capital Initiative (IHCI 2022). An initiative by the Singapore Business Federation, supported by the government body, Workforce Singapore (WSG), with anchor partners McKinsey and EY, it is the first program in Singapore dedicated to equipping companies with people management and job redesign skills required for successful Industry 4.0 transformation. The program runs an in-person enabler program as well as a self-help portal. The eight-week hands-on program helps companies get started on their Industry 4.0 transformation in a controlled and low-risk environment. The program offers a mix of both experiential learning and trials of solutions on companies’ shop floor as part of a four-step journey to build awareness, prepare interventions, experience transformation, validate, and move forward through clear roadmaps.

Much attention goes toward consumers. Robots also get a lot of press. Overhyped tech with no proven use-case and no real market viability gets the rest. Consumer technology (cell phones, web technology) is arguably not a priority for societal innovation at this point. Increased spending on automation technology (robotics) will make a difference, but only if the human perspective is center stage. Overall, the general thrust of both consumer attention and industrial development is utterly unhelpful for the worker. In fact, these technologies might have made their work conditions worse over the past few decades.

As we write in our recent book, Augmented Lean, regardless of what augmentation will become in the future, augmented lean production can be implemented right now, and we describe how. In fact, we have talked to scores of executives in our two-year research effort, and the longform interviews are available on the Augmented podcast. As with all innovations, it is important for CEOs not to get too distracted by the hype and promise that one forgets to implement changes in the here and now that are based on far less fascinating sci-fi fantasies, but that have the true appeal of organizational effectiveness with instant productivity effects.


Excerpted with permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Augmented Lean: A Human-Centric Framework for Managing Frontline Operations by Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim. Copyright © 2023 by Natan Linder and Trond Arne Undheim. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and eBooks are sold.


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