4. Shift towards an integrated digital and human workforce:
4.1 Enhancing productivity and work experience through augmentation
Computer augmentation of human capabilities, such as GPS-guided navigation and advanced decision support systems, has been available for years. Recent advances in human-computer interfaces have made such capabilities more widely accessible. For example, the combination of speech recognition and wearable displays enables convenient hands-free delivery of context-based information at the point of need. Mitsubishi Electric is experimenting with augmented reality software using Epson’s Moverio smart glasses to help air conditioner technicians perform repair services. The glasses let the technician view 3D overlays on physical objects in the field to see how to remove or replace parts.34 The result is reduced repair time and fewer potential mistakes, especially by less experienced or skilled technicians.
The increasing collaboration between human workers and robots provides another way to improve productivity and work experience. This new blend of labour combines human flexibility and contextual decision-making with robots’ precision and consistency to deliver better output. With its recent acquisition of Kiva Systems, for example, Amazon now operates one of the world’s largest fleets of industrial robots in its warehouses, where humans and robots work side-by-side, capable of fulfilling orders up to 70% faster than a non-automated warehouse. While robots perform picking and delivery, human workers spend more time on overall process improvements such as directing lower-volume products to be stored in a more remote area. (See sidebar on “The Future of Robots.”)
Creating a safer workplace is a top priority in many industries. Wearable and connected sensors are increasingly being used to address worker safety across industries such as oil and gas, chemicals, metals, mining and utilities. At Marathon Oil refineries,35 for example, employees wear a wireless multi-gas detector that continuously tracks exposure to harmful gases throughout an employee’s shift. Plant managers can monitor the status, location and safety of all employees on the site, and, in the event of emergency, individuals need only to press a panic button to trigger an alarm and call for help from a central control centre. Capabilities like this go a long way towards ensuring worker safety beyond simple compliance. This is especially true in some emerging regions where work safety standards are still evolving, and enforcement is not always rigorous.
The Industrial Internet can also help make workplaces more flexible and appealing to new generations of workers, such as the Millennials. Most of today’s manufacturing processes, for example, are still organized around large and expensive machines with rigid interfaces. Workers must be physically on the shop floor to operate these machines. With connected factories, a manufacturing engineer can potentially receive notifications on his tablet from hundreds of miles away when a machine is malfunctioning. He can use the same device to resolve the problem remotely, including collaborating with his colleagues on the factory floor if necessary.
This ability to work asynchronously and remotely is significant because mining, agriculture and oil field worksites are often located in isolated areas with few amenities. The decoupling of the worksite and the machines in the field affords a new level of flexibility on where and how work is done. It also transforms the nature of work from the traditional blue-collar work into a knowledge-based role, with real-time access to data from industrial assets, such as fleets of trains, airplanes, power grids or earth-moving equipment. For example, at Rio Tinto’s operations centre in Perth, Australia, skilled equipment operators now sit in a remote command centre and work side-by-side with data analysts and engineers to orchestrate the actions of huge drills, excavators, earth movers and dump trucks across multiple mining sites.36