Life @ work

Factory of the future will help people and robots to work together

  • 28 Aug

The factory of the future is likely to draw on artificial intelligence to get robots working optimally with their human colleagues on a production run.

In the years to come, human beings will be working more and more frequently alongside robots. However, this approach will not necessarily prove free of difficulties. Accordingly, the Corporate Technology arm of German multinational engineering group Siemens has been working on an artificial intelligence (AI)-based system to oil the wheels of human-machine collaboration. This software programme - first designed for Siemens’ clients as a production-as-service software - is now used in one of Siemens’ factories to allocate tasks to the human and robot resources and plan their mutual cooperation.

The programme, entitled Click2Make, takes account of the available resources and skills at a manufacturing plant – including details such as whether a human technician is left- or right-handed and his/her preferred language for communication –  so as to optimise teamwork.

The AI-based system could for instance ask a machine to bring a human worker various parts for assembly. Then this new-generation shift foreman would verify that all relevant safety conditions are being followed, including coming to the aid of a flesh-and-blood team-member who is trying to lift an object that is too heavy for him/her. As the movements of human beings are rather less precise and predictable than those of robots, the factory of the future will in addition be equipped with video cameras to track all movements with a view to avoiding any collisions.

Some experts, such as Mélanie Cook, Head of Strategy at corporate organisation consultancy SapientRazorfish, argue that Man ought to collaborate with Machine in a spirit of ‘intelligence augmentation’ –  which is exactly what is likely to happen in the futuristic factory envisaged by Siemens. But what will happen if robots become too skilled and too autonomous? All the more reason for human employees to concentrate on areas in which they are most gifted, such as imagination, creativity and emotional intelligence, insists Management Consultant John Hagel, whose work as Co-Chairman of Deloitte’s ‘Centre for the Edge’ focuses on such questions.