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?

Der Standard - - LEADERSHIP STANDARD - By Ayad Al-Ani


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.

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