From replacement to collaboration, the manufacturing world has been witnessing a significant transition in the human-machine relationship over the last few decades. The transition is keeping in sync with the changing dynamics and characteristics of the society – undergoing a transformation from industrial to automation to cybernation-based world. And now, as per the world renowned SINIC theory, propounded by OMRON’s founder Kazuma Tateishi, we are all set to see the next stage which is the advent of the Autonomous Society. One of the primary characteristics of this evolution and Autonomous Society is going to be the merging boundaries between factories and society necessitating the transition from collaboration to “harmony between people and machines” in the manufacturing sector. 

In fact, the transformation has already begun. There are many changes that we have started witnessing in the manufacturing world. With the concept of glocalization replacing globalization, mass customization is getting sidetracked with personalized manufacturing mandates. With climate changes and unprecedented situation like Covid in tow, consumption orientation is getting replaced with sustenance orientation. The makers are now pondering over social needs, more than ever, rather than only industry and production-based needs. All this, in turn, is demanding the data efficiency driven systems to do more and fetch more sustainable results by transitioning  to knowledge driven systems. 

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And so the new smart manufacturing ecosystem can’t just stay like the way it is. We all can visualize that a typical smart ecosystem’s core is made up of a smart factory that has many industrial automation elements taking advantage of technologies like artificial intelligence, industry 4.0, etc. striving to meet ever increasing demand for products with better quality, cost and delivery. 

This mainly includes high speed, high precision industrial robots to bring in more productivity in the designated tasks;  autonomous robots bringing in flexibility on the same shopfloor via moving material in and out of the factory with natural feature-based navigation ; cobots working with humans; sensors facilitating zero breakdown & predictive maintenance; safety sensors enabling safe human machine interactions; AI controllers, vision systems, scanners , tagging devices- all connected through the IoT platform- getting data and sending it back to the cloud and thus making this whole manufacturing  setup smart. 

However the social-need driven and sustainability-based transformation of the manufacturing world needs more out of this typical smart factory-based ecosystem. It needs to get connected with sustainable resources , integrated with – logistics 4.0 to enable fully integrated and interconnected supply chain ensuring impeccable & timely material supply; personalized manufacturing which is on-demand yet has mass production efficiencies and a flexibility to cater high-mix-low-volume scenarios; big data to catalyze human creativity and bring in more collaborative manufacturing opportunities; cyber security providing stronger protection for internet-based & huge connected production systems and so on – to make a leap towards more autonomy rather than more automation. 

The introduction of Internet of Abilities

This also includes a remarkable shift from the basic smart manufacturing concepts of machine centricity,  IoT  device connectivity to “connecting abilities” empowered with the novel concept of “Internet of Abilities” (IoA) based on human centricity. IoA is the futuristic and essential component that is going to set the bedrock of a super harmonious bond between humans and machines which is imperative to enrich the lives of people in the autonomous society leading to sustainability.

The new smart manufacturing eco-system based on IoA is going to be a hyper-connected thinking factory, which is self-optimizing , self-healing and happy. The term “happy factory” is hitherto unheard and surprising to many of us! Happiness is a state that we, generally, associate with a B2C or consumer mindset. But the new smart manufacturing ecosystem based on IoA has the potential not only to set up a happiness index for factories but also make them score high!  

The literal meaning of Happy Factories is a shop floor where workers are happy, productive and creative because they have immensely valuable & seamless human-machine harmony. Inducting human dexterity into machines is one area where we see these in action. A very valid and interesting example of this induction is the integration of 3D vision and bin picking in cobots. With this, the cobots are now able to have the human dexterity, intelligence and eyes which make them identify & locate a part in a fraction of second and start assembling- rendering the need to feed the parts in an oriented fashion useless. This leads to a strong enhancement in the human machine harmonization.

The need for ‘happy factories’

Creating happy factories through real time or autonomous training based on AI is another example of IoA. Different types of technologies- AI, deep learning, machine learning, time motion studies, video captures – study the tasks and support the processes that are prone to mistakes by catching them before it comes into the notice of the operators. This autonomous proficiency based self- coaching works wonders in reducing the frustration, fixing the errors before they appear into the product and thus making the work environment more enjoyable and efficient. Imagine a human worker doing X % age of work, and a robot doing Y %. The human worker does a mistake, robot is able to make up for it and then collaboratively inform the operator. So it’s like two human operators working together like friends. That’s how we should visualize the new world of robots working hand in hand with humans. The technology also makes it possible to have real time coaching through wearables that give quality feedback and observations on performance as the work goes along.

An AI analysis of a worker’s data also enables seamless transfer of craftsmanship from skilled to novice leading to enhanced motivation and reduction in the learning curve. The human recognition systems identify inappropriate and wasteful motions and feeds it back to the operator to help them correct themselves at an early stage of training making the whole relationship between human and machines  truly collaborative leading to more harmony.

The sector needs a collaborative teamwork between the technology providers, skill enhancers, government stakeholders and the manufacturers to make it a reality. It needs a strong push for skills enhancement with niche trainings designed for the manufacturing community – including system integrators, machine builders and end consumers – and an end-to-end support from automation providers for capability enhancement, cocreation , PoCs, feasibility studies to make the manufacturers visualize the outcomes and minimize the risks when they are executing new projects. A concerted effort is the key to usher in this next era of sustainable manufacturing through Internet of Abilities.

Contributed by Swaminathan Vangal Ramamurthy, General Manager, OMRON Automation Centre | Robotics, OMRON Asia Pacific Pte Ltd, Singapore

About the author

Swaminathan Vangal Ramamurthy currently serves as the General Manager of OMRON’s Automation Centre & Robotics for Asia Pacific. Based out of the OMRON Headquarters in Singapore, he leads and provides guidance for OMRON’s regional automation engineering programs. Swami has been instrumental in establishing the Smart Manufacturing “Live Lab” in OMRON, Singapore which introduces a new paradigm in manufacturing using flexible, reconfigurable technology, seamlessly combining autonomous robots with fixed robots tightly integrated with OMRON intelligent controls, vision and safety and linked and visualized by IIoT. He and his team work closely with the regional OMRON Automation centres in South East Asia to evaluate, architect and successfully implement “integrated and connected” smart manufacturing solutions.