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Smarter, swifter, safer: The future of work in manufacturing with technology

How will today’s technological developments, including 5G and automation, impact of the future of work in manufacturing? Based on a new report on this industry’s evolution, we take a closer look at manufacturing work and the rise of smarter, swifter and safer production for employees.

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Future manufacturing technology
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Senior Researcher, Ericsson Industry Lab

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Have you ever imagined people from the past being able to come and experience today’s society? If so, you’re not alone! In fact, there are several movies and TV shows based on that very premise. An industry worker from the beginning of 1922 would most likely be astonished to see all the technical progress in today’s manufacturing and production plants.

It’s highly likely that the technology evolution in manufacturing will continue in the decades to come. This was part of the reason we decided to try and investigate the status of manufacturing today and gain insights for the future. It resulted in our latest IndustryLab report: “The rise of the smarter, swifter, safer production employee.”

We believe that manufacturing is an important industry; it represents 16 percent of global GDP and employment. We’ve already taken a deep dive into several of the challenges manufacturers are facing, outlined in our earlier blog from this study. In this post, however, we’d like to take a closer look at some of the production tools that are powered by connectivity, such as 5G, which can be implemented to overcome these challenges.

A historic outlook

During the late nineteenth century, there was a spectacular increase in industrial growth. The expansion of manufacturing created a need for large numbers of factory workers. These workers had to face long hours (16 hours per day), poor working conditions, and job instability. During economic recessions, many workers lost their jobs or faced sharp pay cuts. Industry work was also of a dangerous nature. As an example, by the year 1900, industrial accidents killed 35,000 workers in the US alone per year and maimed 500,000 others.

Dangerous, dull and dirty

Fast forward to 2022, and we can see that even if the average working conditions have improved for workers around the world, a lot of the work is still dangerous, dull and dirty. In our study, production employees say that 71 percent of their work is either dull, dirty or dangerous, and as many as 80 percent have experienced wear and tear injuries at work.

This may sound surprisingly high, considering all the efforts made by industries to make work safer, not least through the introduction of new production technology. What is interesting is that only 2 percent of decision makers are unsatisfied with their efforts to reduce dull, dirty and dangerous work. Clearly, it’s unacceptable that such a vast share of manufacturing employees are still getting injured and even losing their lives as a consequence of work related accidents.

Manufacturing a more connected industry

By 2030 there will be 4.7 billion wireless modules across smart manufacturing floors, with a value of over US$ 1 trillion. Discover more about the future of manufacturing.

Read more

Technology augmenting work

Today, technology has transformed so many things in life, making everyday tasks easier and quicker to perform than ever. Manufacturing is no exception, and has gone through a staggering transformation over the last few decades.

By gathering insights from more than 8,000 respondents working within the manufacturing industry, we were able to learn more about industry work, the challenges involved, the role technology has today, and the roles it could have in the future. In the report, we chose to look at nine different production tools that, combined with wireless connectivity such as 5G, could improve the work situation for employees and make the work smarter, swifter and safter. Even if the vast majority of decision makers in the report expect their manufacturing to be fully automated eventually, they agreed that humans and machines will need to co-exist on the factory floor until then. This aligns well with what is being discussed within the framework of Industry 5.0.

Figure 1: Current and expected future usage of ICT-enabled production tools

Figure 1: Current and expected future usage of ICT-enabled production tools

In fact, roughly 70 percent of the manufacturers expect to have implemented at least five of the nine tools within the next five years!

The studied tools can be divided into three different groups based on their differing nature: the off loaders (help redistribute production employees’ work), the broad enablers (have a broad application area across several industries) and the augmenters (improve production employees’ senses).

Relative importance by 2030, time-to-introduction of tools and value for money.

Figure 2: Relative importance by 2030, time-to-introduction of tools and value for money.

In the figure above, we’ve plotted the order that manufacturers expect to introduce the tools (x-axis) against the expected and relative importance of the tools in 2030 (y-axis). The relative value for money is represented by the size of the tool’s bubble on the chart.

The three groupings of tools based on their nature are also visible in this chart, showing relative differences in expected time of introduction and importance, which have been enlarged to highlight differences in this chart.

Many of these production tools can play a vital role in making work life safer and reducing work related accidents to a bare minimum, as discussed earlier. For example, augmenter tools such as exoskeletons can help employees by adding motoric strength to help them to get around safely and independently, as well as assisting them to perform hazardous jobs with fewer potential injuries. Today, powered exoskeleton suits are becoming a reality and there are many commercial and experimental exosuits now operating globally. One example is Boeing, an aircraft manufacturer that has successfully introduced these tools.

Another augmenter tool, augmented reality (AR), can visualize a mix of data with reality to provide a better understanding of what an employee is seeing, easy to follow instructions, increased understanding, immersive training and interactions, improved safety and more. For example, it can be used to give instructions in complicated assembly procedures, and one of its most valuable features, according to production employees, is that it leaves their hands free to work. AR wearables will benefit greatly from the ongoing shift towards placing more of the computing in the network using advanced wireless networks. This will likely improve the available functionality as well as the battery size and life, which in turn will make them lighter and more physically attractive for users.

An offloader tool worth mentioning is collaborative robots. ABB introduced its first collaborative robot in 2015. It became a game changer and created a new era of safe and productive side-by-side work between humans and robots. Collaborative robots combine people’s unique ability to adapt to change with a robot’s tireless endurance for precise, repetitive tasks.

Video recognition is an interesting broad enabler tool. It offers relatively low-cost, high-definition video cameras which can be used across any industry to provide tracking, counting and surveillance functionality. Video recognition can cost-efficiently reduce dull tasks through, for example, visual quality inspection on a production line. It can also be combined with drone inspection or a surveillance system to trigger actions like ordering or alarms. The functionality can also replace the need for separate tracking systems.

The remote control of machines, robots and vehicles is another broad enabler tool that production employees rank highly for reducing dirty work (65 percent) and keeping them out of harm’s way (68 percent), on top of higher efficiency and quality. One of the leading examples is the mining industry, where the use of remote control for underground vehicles is growing rapidly. This allows work to continue quickly after blasting and gives operators a safe, comfortable working environment.

Relative position of manufacturing segments in terms of their level of automation and use of ICT-enabled production tools.

Figure 3: Relative position of manufacturing segments in terms of their level of automation and use of ICT-enabled production tools.

The adoption of these tools is by no means uniform across industry sectors. In some sectors, such as the ‘automotive and transport equipment’ segment, tools have already been implemented to a high degree, while ‘metal products’ rank lower than other industries, both in terms of tool adaptation and automatization.

But there are a few barriers and consequences

The introduction of technology certainly comes with its own set of challenges. About 30 percent of the decision makers and production employees surveyed ranked “difficult and time-consuming to learn”, “complicated to use” and “immature technology” as the highest drawbacks. In fact, both decision makers and production employees agreed that the skills gap will grow as more tools and technologies are introduced.

Another aspect that was also raised is the potential risks of data collection and sharing. Here, some 28 percent of production employees were negative to digital tools providing data on all activities of production/manufacturing work (i.e., which tasks they do, how they do them, when and where). But data collection can also be seen as an opportunity for a better work environment if handled in a correct and transparent way.

As a result of ongoing automation, as well as the introduction of these ICT-enabled production tools, the interviewed enterprises believed that the work manufacturing employees performed will shift away from job tasks that are physically dangerous and dirty to become more focused on surveillance and monitoring. Consequently, this will require more cognitive skills and the ability to process large amounts of data which, in turn, will most likely mean the need for continuous investments in upskilling and training.


High-performance connectivity needed

As discussed earlier, when more ICT-enabled production tools are used, a closer interaction between humans and machines on the factory floor will be enabled. This will lead to a high degree of mobility and flexibility. As these systems rely on a digital infrastructure, a high-performance wireless connectivity such as 5G will be needed to support this transition. In fact, eight out of 10 manufacturers have already deployed 5G networks or are planning to within the next five years.

Manufacturers find themselves in a situation where they quickly and cost-efficiently may rearrange production, and flexibly connect thousands of sensors, vehicles and machines. The use of ICT-enabled production tools is further enabling this evolution. The use cases currently out there assume further focus on low latency and speed that urge manufacturers to put high demands on their reliability, bandwidth, latency and security.  The aspect of reliability and availability cannot be overstated, considering that an automotive manufacturing site finalizes a new USD 20,000–80,000 sales item roughly every 1–2 minutes – even a few minutes of assembly line downtime could result in severe revenue losses.

A win-win for both employees and employers

What if people from the future, say in 2122, were to look back at our present world? What would they say? Maybe they would be surprised by the vast amount of manual labor that was still carried out in our time. But maybe they would also see that the 2020s was the decade when labor really made the transition away from dull, dirty and dangerous jobs. Maybe they would conclude that this was the time when manufacturing employees found themselves in a situation with inspiring, secure and interesting work tasks, working seamlessly alongside machines while also working for companies that were thriving.

The way we see it, the introduction of new production tools powered by wireless technology such as 5G, can act as a much needed stepping stone towards Industry 5.0 and is a win-win situation for both production employees and employers.

Want to know more?

Read Patrik’s previous blog post, What is the gig economy and how will it change the future of work?

Read about 5G for manufacturing

Read about Industry 4.0

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