A production plant so totally automated that robots could turn out the lights by themselves: Could that signal the return of the extraordinary craftsmen serving as a kind of role model for robots?
he idea of interlinked, sensor augmented, self-governing production processes is gaining momentum. Yet at the same time, the impact of this concept on the workforce remains surprisingly vague. This, of course, can be explained by the fact that man is not at the centre of these developments and – perhaps even more importantly – Cyber Physical Systems (CPS)-based production lines are geared towards eliminating human activity. It must be clear that this kind of automation could also have been designed in such a way as to use the skills of humans instead of degrading them.
Nothing inherent in automation inhibits this. But for many reasons, automation and robots where never used that way. Surprisingly, in the 1970s and 1980s – an epoch where political struggle at the workplace was still felt – this was already a sobering observation, now almost forgotten. Back then, the late French theorist André Gorz introduced the label of the “process worker” a role description that had been published by an individual using the pseudonym “Ilnox” in the communist daily il manifesto. The process worker, explained Gorz citing Ilnox, is the by-product of computerisation, which represents a new interface between the production process and the worker.
Monitoring at a distance
The worker will cease to have any direct interaction with the product, but will focus now mainly on controlling and maintaining the production process. Thus, computerization will impose its own standardizations, such that the kind of work done, irrespective of its location or even industry (brewery, power plant, pasta production …), will essentially be the same – monitoring and controlling the production process at a distance, via display screens.
The effects of this transition to the process workers will be hard to underestimate and are somewhat contradictory: first of all, the monitoring and controlling tasks, and the context skills needed to complete them, will be somewhat more complex than the current tasks and skills, so some re-skilling will take place. Secondly, these skills will be accessed more easily and will be transferable across more or less all industries and locations, giving the process worker more mobility. At the same time the skills in use may be rendered commonplace, because no specific company or industry characteristics will be relevant, giving the process worker little advantage over others in competitive situations.
Finally, the work to be done will be quite dull! Monitoring events might call for action sometimes, but they will mostly require passive observation. The worker will create nothing, but this nothingness will drain him.
The goal has always been to remove humans from the production process. And in some instances we seem to have reached this goal. The most striking example is the lights-out factory: a production plant so totally automated that robots could turn out the lights by themselves (a very unlikely prospect, as these factories can and should work 24/7). The first examples of this kind of pro- duction facility are quite impressive, as the science editor of the New York Times described in mixture of fascination and concern: “The brightly lit single-story automated shaver factory is a modular mega machine composed of more than 128 linked stations-each one a shining transparent cage connected to its siblings by a conveyor, resembling the glass enclosed popcorn makers found in movie theatres. […] One assembly every two seconds translates into 30 shavers a minute, 1,800 an hour, 1,304,000 a month, and an astounding 15,768,000 a year.”
The return of the gods
In this factory, the role of humans is minimized in a way that seems to even exceed Gorz’s vision: “(…) a handful of humans flutter around the edges of the shaver manufacturing line. A team of engineers dressed in blue lab coats keeps the system running by feeding it raw material.”
The workers in this plant are, obviously, concerned with controlling and monitoring, although it seems this role will also be taken over by machines sooner or later; the robots themselves already know how to sort out mistakes. Thus, not many workers are needed at all in this kind of factory – in this plant it was less than 10.
In a provocative claim, the science fiction writer and computer scientist Vernor Vinge posed the notion of a computing singularity in which machine intelligence will make such rapid progress that it will cross a threshold and then, in some yet unspecified leap, become super human. If Singularitarians are right, this transformation will lead to human labour becoming surplus: There will be fewer places for human beings in the resulting firms and economy. This has certainly not happened yet. A remarkable company policy shift that suggests that there are limits to automation was the re- cent decision of Toyota to systematically re-integrate humans back into the production process.
The return of the extraordinary craftsmen, known as Kami-sama, or gods, who, in the traditional company, had the ability to “do anything” with a focus on improving the production process points to another important role for the worker: not only supervising the automated production process but also serving as a kind of “role model” for the robots and production lines.
From this point of view, the robots and production systems must learn from humans, requiring refined and extraordinary workers with the deep skills to be recreated in machines: “To be the master of the machine” an observer noted “you have to have the knowledge and the skills to teach the machine.’” Singularitarians, of course, would argue that this is a mere interim partnership between humans and robots, during which human knowledge is transferred, until at some point, creativity will arise on its own in some brilliant machine of the future.
The value chain opens up
Some of the vague and rather general views on the future skills of the factory worker might also have to do with the fact that observers sometimes assume that the present state of the factory will continue to exist in the future. It is overseen, however, that linking up and interconnecting machines, robots, supply stores and customers, will create opportunities for “opening up” the value chain of the factory, enabling totally new configurations of producers, suppliers and customers. This new setting has been labelled “Open Manufacturing” and should be considered the organisational twin of CPS based automation.
In this new mode of production, different producers work on products that are “open” in the sense that their patent is public (Tesla …) or that standardized and open interfaces (=APIs: Application Programming Interfaces) are available and “producers” are invited to participate in the development of the product or its applications (Watson Cloud, iPhone …). Here, a complex network will emerge, connecting customers, developers and different producers: all have access to the product blueprints and participate in ongoing product development, production and distribution. These developers could also use open working spaces (Fab Labs) to elaborate their ideas and participate in the production process, as intended in Obama’s “Nation of Makers”program.
The designs would then be sent to the production lines to be “printed out”, if the series is sufficiently large enough or being replicated in a decentral manner, using 3D printers. It is obvious to see that working as a production worker in this kind of environment would be quite a different task than in the lights-out factory.
The “worker” in this setting, thus, will embrace more “design thinking instead of production thinking” and will need knowledge about adequate machinery (MultiMachines, prototyping), on -demand-infrastructures (Shapeways, Design for download), Internet of Things (Spimes, Sensor commons), methods (modularisation, open development) and social movements (Maker movement, hardware Hacker). Connecting the different production lines with different producers, and customers that can refine, produce or develop parts of the product, the “factory worker” becomes an enabler or architect of the CPS production!
Starting from the first perspectives of the 1980s, covering current developments and also anticipating the factory of the future, there are now three possible models for the human in the CPS production line:
The process worker: This worker is mainly concerned with monitoring the more or less fully automated production process.
The role model: This role brings back the human as a template for skills that need to be reconstituted in machines
The architect: Here the factory worker becomes the enabler and configurator of the CPS production, connecting different developers, production lines and customers.
Perhaps it is more useful to imagine these roles as a kind of learning path for the present worker. Staying in the inferior role of the worker is not an option for most humans. Not only is this work quite unchallenging, it will also be little demanded in the future. When looking at the three models as a kind of development path, however, it is possible to imagine that process workers will evolve to (re-)discover their abilities and become masters of certain skills sets that lead to robots and production lines being built to their abilities and likings.
From this position, it is not a huge step to become the architect of the entire factory layout, which will be in constant flux in order to connect the different type of developers, customers (acting as producers) and the production lines that need to serve these groups. Learning the skills needed for the development – one may argue – will be difficult and not possible for the worker. But we must also anticipate that digitally augmented learning paths will become available to anyone and may make ascending the ladder more feasible and easier.
QQQAYAD AL-ANI is a researcher / university teacher at the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Berlin, the University of Potsdam and the Stellenbosch School of Public Leadership, South Africa.