Written by Emrah Arica (SINTEF Manufacturing) and Manuel Oliveira (KIT-AR).
The fourth industrial revolution poses new challenges for the modern production operator. To meet these challenges, we are developing technologies that can support workers both physically and cognitively. Technologies such as exoskeletons and Augmented Reality will permanently change how production operators work.
The challenges faced by the modern production operator
The manufacturing industry is going through another industrial revolution, a transformation driven by automation and digitalisation. As with previous industrial revolutions, new technologies are the key drivers of change, increasing the efficiency of the processes, factories, and value chains.
However, the digitalisation of the work environment and the ever-increased complexity of the activities are imposing new roles and tasks to the workers of the production shopfloors. They remain a foundational pillar in the fabric of manufacturing.
Consequently, workers are required to undertake more and more challenging tasks:
- They need to work under continuous optimisation.
- There is a premium on updated knowledge to increase efficiency, quality, and sustainability.
- Digitalized and automatized workplaces also imply new forms of interactions between human and technology.
How will we allocate choose which tasks to allocate between humans, computers, machines, and robots? Recent reports from various manufacturing organizations indicate that manufacturers are not ready for these challenges.
The skills gap and aging workforce
A substantial challenge termed as “skills gap” is brewing behind the transformation process of the manufacturing industry. In simple terms, the “skills gap” can be defined as the deviation between the skills required on the job and the skills possessed by the workforce . This mismatch of skills leads to loss of productivity and in many cases, a loss of quality.
Another important contributing challenge to skills gap is the aging of the workforce, which compounds both the physical and cognitive problems. Cognitively, age is literally an imminent knowledge time bomb that will drain manufacturing companies of their precious knowledge and physically, the workforce becomes less able with the passing of time. OECD estimates that 56 out of 100 workers will be over 65 years old in 2050 .
This number was 28 in 2015, indicating the growing acceleration of this challenge. This challenge is also in the political agenda of EU and other countries to hold the aging workforce in workplaces with the condition of ensuring their health and productivity .
The upskilling of the workforce takes significant time and the scarcity of skilled workers in the labour market, hold back manufacturing companies as they experience bottleneck in their uptake of new transformative solutions to remain competitive in the global markets. In the US alone, it is estimated that over 50% of manufacturing worker positions will stay unfilled due to the skills gap . Manufacturing companies also sees this challenge as the biggest hindrance if front of new investments and business opportunities .
Solving the challenges by digitally enhancing production operators
With the shortage of skilled workers and ageing workforce, there is a greater emphasis on mental and physical well-being. In addition to the need to support worker’s cognitive augmentation, one needs to consider the physical augmentation to reduce the stress on the body. This ensures the well-being of the workers, increasing the social sustainability dimension of manufacturing, which ultimately affects both productivity and quality.
We can use enabling technologies to support the workers in the execution of their tasks in their work environment, by means of supporting both their physical and cognitive tasks, as well as enhancing their skills.
Operator 4.0 – The new production operator
Workers that use enabling technologies to support their work are recently referred to as “operator/worker 4.0”  or “digitally enhanced worker/operator” .
Through technology enhancement, the aging workforce can also become a part of the solution, while indicating a significant challenge currently. We can keep them and their knowledge longer in manufacturing environments, ensuring their productivity and health meanwhile reducing the skills gap.
Additionally, the attractiveness of the manufacturing workplaces is increased both ergonomically and job satisfaction wise. In fact, EU commission also takes this approach by recently coined term “Industry 5.0” which aims to develop human-centred manufacturing workplaces  where the underpinning rationale is to emphasise the human and societal dimension of manufacturing.
Technologies that can support production operators
Emerging technologies can support the workers in the following ways:
Physical support: Exoskeletons
Emerging technologies can support the workers in their physical tasks to safeguard their physical well-being and reinforce health and safety at work, while increasing their productivity.
Naturally, the nature of the task determines the most appropriate approach for augmentation, so for example, exoskeletons can assist the workers with lifting and maintaining loads, supporting body weight, and stabilizing the worker’s body.
Hence the physical stress can be reduced, correct ergonomic posture can be ensured and potential injury can be prevented. With the help of embedded sensors relevant biometric data can be collected from worker’s body during the performance of the work. Such data can be utilized and analysed by machine learning algorithms that can give feedback on the physical stress being experienced and potential ergonomic issues, which subsequently can then be utilized for real time interventions (e.g., taking break, correcting body position) and long-term improvements on workplace design as corrective actions.
When considering exoskeletons, one needs to consider not only the actual physical activity being undertaken (e.g., lifting a heavy load vs manipulating heavy tools) and the work environment itself (e.g., confined spaces do not allow for a fully active exoskeleton).
However, physical support does not equate solely with different types of exoskeletons for physical augmentation, one can have an intelligent workplace that adapts and adjusts to the needs of the worker to carry out their work in the most efficient and ergonomically safe conditions.
An example is the case of the workbench that changes horizontal and vertical position based on the height of the worker and the task being carried out. These premises can potentially also contribute to keeping the aging workforce longer in workplaces.
Cognitive support: Augmented Reality and AI
Workers’ cognitive decision-making tasks and skills development needs are increasing as discussed above. The worker autonomy is also encouraged by the top management in modern manufacturing workplaces, implying more control on their own work in terms of both physical and cognitive processes.
Such cognitive decision-making tasks include, but not limited, to work planning and scheduling, quality control, and handling unforeseen events when they occur in dynamic manufacturing environments. For situation awareness and making effective decisions, workers act as an information hub receiving and processing information from different sources (e.g., other workstations, machines, inventory, quality, order status).
Relevant technologies include:
- Manufacturing Execution Systems and business-intelligence driven dashboards, which can support the decision making by providing the information required in a refined form.
- Augmented Reality (AR) can provide online instructions to the workers, helping them in the work execution and verifying the quality of the work. The skill development of the workers can be accelerated also by AR technology and PC-based learning games, in a much less costly manner. Sensors embedded into other entities (e.g., AR glasses, production lines) enables real time information from the processes, which can then be utilized in machine learning algorithms for continuous development and continuous process improvement
Technology can also support the way workers interact with technological tools. Shop floor workers have different working conditions and requirements compared to the office workers. They need mobility to walk around the machines and use their hands on the work.
Technologies such as speech recognition, muscle recognition, gesture recognition, and mobile watches can enable hand-free control of the enabling tools. As such, workers can receive the required information and decision support while their daily work activities aren’t compromised.
SINTEF’s experience and role for the digital enhancement of workers
As one of the most reputable R&D institutes in Europe and leading institute in Norway, SINTEF has also been aware of the importance of digital enhancement of workers for the future of manufacturing industry.
In fact, digital enhancement of workers is identified as one of the key priority areas in SINTEF’s strategic initiatives in the last years. SINTEF has led or contributed to several national and EU projects that have focused on this topic on the last decade.
Human Manufacturing (HUMAN)
The pioneering project was the EU project Human Manufacturing (HUMAN) that was coordinated by SINTEF and aimed to leverage digital technologies to augment the human worker on the shopfloor to mitigate the human shortcomings and limitations of technology.
The project explored different technologies (e.g. Augmented Reality, Exoskeletons, Virtual Reality, machine learning, and process mining) as part of the platform to provide the workers on the shopfloor with cognitive and physical support.
A critical outcome of the project that came as a spin-off from SINTEF is KIT-AR , a fully integrated industrial AR system that aims to increase manufacturing productivity whilst providing support for quality assurance by using machine learning and computer vision.
Another EU project that involves digital support to workers is called DAT4.Zero (“Data 4.0”) that focuses on developing a data-driven quality management system, towards achieving zero defect manufacturing in manufacturing environments with high automation and including human-in-the-loop.
The cognitive augmentation is being done in distinct manufacturing environments, such as the quality inspection of products where the worker has support in identifying minute and fine-grained defects or in the case of managing significant number of assembly options with the need for precise quality traceability.
Digitally Strengthened Operator
SINTEF has also executed Norwegian innovation projects related to this topic. Digital-forsterket Operatør (Digitally strengthened Operator) was an IPN project funded by Norwegian Research Council and involved leading manufacturing companies GKN Aerospace and Sandvik Teeness. The project focused on developing decision support tools and dashboards for workers on the shop floor, to support them in planning and coordination of their work.
SINTEF is now aiming to carry its growing experience and knowledge to new projects with Norwegian manufacturing companies that are interested in digital enhancement of their workers.
In that context, SINTEF has started a new project called HUMANNOR a year ago, funded by the Norwegian Research Council. The objective of this project is to disseminate and exploit SINTEF’s knowledge on digital enhancement of workers to the Norwegian manufacturing companies by organizing and performing webinars, seminars, dedicated workshops related to this topic.
These activities will have impacts on increasing the knowledge on the potential impact of cognitive augmentation of workers, hands-on experimentation of cutting-edge technology, identification, and planning of digitalization of shopfloor.
For those interested in going beyond experimentation, increasing knowledge and wish to commit to the digitalisation, SINTEF supported by KIT-AR will work with the company on new proposals for collaborative research projects both in Norway and the EU context.
Join us in this journey and be part of our Linkedin community, [HUMANNOR Linkedin page], if you are also interested in the digital enhancement of production workers. You will be informed about the state-of-the-art applications, cutting-edge reports, and events we will organize. You will also have the opportunity to choose the topics we will post, share your experiences, engage with other companies that have implemented certain solutions, and build partnerships for future projects.
 WMF (2019). World Manufacturing Report: Skills for the Future of Manufacturing. Retrieved from: https://worldmanufacturing.org/wp-content/uploads/WorldManufacturingFoundation2019-Report.pdf
 OECD (2019). The Future of Work: OECD Employment Outlook. Retrieved from: The Future of Work: OECD Employment Outlook.
 Romero, D., Stahre, J. and Taisch, M., 2020. The Operator 4.0: Towards socially sustainable factories of the future. Computers & Industrial Engineering, 139, p.106128.
 Pinzone, M., Acerbi, F., Arica, E., Oliveira, M., Taisch, M., 2021. An assessment tool for digital enhancement of operators on the production shop floor. Procedia CIRP, 104, p. 1361-1366.
 European Commission (2021). Industry 5.0 Towards a sustainable, human-centric and resilient European industry. Retrieved from: https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/468a892a-5097-11eb-b59f-01aa75ed71a1/