Human factors and ergonomics provide a scientific approach to prepare workers for an increasingly automated manufacturing environment. Dr Sarah Fletcher, lead, Manufacturing Group, Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors and head of Industrial Psychology and Human Factors Group at Cranfield University, reports.
The manufacturing industry has always made progress, and at times revolutionised itself, through the development and application of new technologies. Today, perhaps more than ever, this is the primary focus of the current Industry 4.0 drive for greater digitisation and intelligent automation in factories.
However, a key aspect of getting the design of these new technologies right that really sits at the heart of our future success is how well we understand how they will impact on, and be best assimilated with, human operators and workforces.
Human factors and technology
As production systems will involve increasing levels of automation, informatics, robotics, sensors, mobile devices, etc., it’s important to remember that human skills will remain essential for many tasks, making the marriage between humans and machines critical to success.
Human factors will therefore play an essential role in the future of manufacturing where people and technology are being integrated more closely and more intensively than ever before; it’s essential that we fully understand how to best design and operationalise both human and technological functions
‘Human Factors’ (ergonomics) provides a scientific approach to human-centred design, applying physiological and psychological principles to optimise the balance of people’s strengths and limitations.
It has a long history of making important contributions to the design of human-centred systems including manufacturing technologies and processes, although often as a limited part of engineering design.
The current challenge for industry is to include human factors with engineering and technology developments to optimise how workforces and shop floor environments are prepared for the transformational changes being brought about by augmented digitisation and smart systems.
At our recent event held at Cranfield University to launch a new Manufacturing Sector Group, CIEHF members were joined by a number of engineers and industrialists to explore this topic together. Iain Wright, chair of Parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, opened the event by reminding us that Britain’s manufacturing output still ranks as ninth in the world.
Human factors and ergonomics have a key role to play in reshoring manufacturing back to the UK. Wright explained: “While technology has the ability to increase productivity and reduce costs, it’s human factors that will enable us to fully integrate our supply chains and enable differentiation.”
Developing industrial robots to collaborate with humans
Industrial robotics is one of the main technologies being developed for future manufacturing systems and therefore a good example of the important role for human factors in design and implementation.
In terms of design, as we see the traditional segregation of large industrial robotics replaced by greater collaboration enabled by sensor-based safety systems, and by the introduction of smaller force-limited robotics, we will see much closer human-robot interaction and proximity.
The application of human factors in design activities is vital to ensure we are creating robots that can effectively work and interact with people. For example, humans come in all shapes and sizes and, unlike machines, bring high levels of unpredictability in their responses and behaviour.
Human variability has been a traditional problem for manufacturing system design and performance prediction, but the progressive trend for more flexible and adaptable workforces means that differences between operators and their capabilities is being seen as more valuable in systems which require more frequent product and skills changes.
So, as workforces become more mobile and diverse, human factors is needed to ensure inclusive design of robots and intelligent systems to improve their capability for interpreting and responding to human operator requirements.
Getting humans ready for the future workplace
Inevitably, all of this means the industry’s future workplaces are going to look very different, and it’s important that we consider the implications for design and implementation.
Although it is expected that future workforces will be more mobile, it’s also important to consider how to prepare existing workers who will be called upon to adapt their tasks, techniques, processes, and cultures.
Human factors is the most appropriate approach for redeveloping and enhancing manual and cognitive skillsets to prepare workers for changing work environments and new task demands in future production systems.
For new systems to be successful, we need to ensure that people are not only able, but keen to work with them. Ergonomics and human factors offers the scientific and systematic approach needed for effective human-robot system design.