Plant Digital Transformation

Humans and Robots

Digital Transformation is all the rage and for good reason. As more and more processes and procedures are digitized, there are improvements that become possible because data is discretely recorded, actionable, objective and can be analyzed for patterns and predictions that can transform decision making.

One thing that shouldn’t be missed is the human element. Even the most advanced technologies are overseen and run by humans. So, what is the “human element”?  It’s the innate ability to sense (to see, hear, feel, smell and even taste) ones surrounding conditions – observing a leak or spill, hearing a rattle or alarm, sensing a vibration, the smell of smoke, an acidic taste in the air, and on-and-on. The human element is the ability to quickly use these senses in addition to the information from control systems to communicate and make decisions accordingly. That’s why humans control the control systems.

An area we see that’s often one of the last to be addressed in digital transformation is the operators’ needs for recording their observations, communicating them to others and using them efficiently to drive better decision making in order to be safer and more effective.  It’s not uncommon for really important operations to still be using paper log books and lots of paper forms for recording their various observations/inspections.  And, paper alternatives are not much better (e.g., spreadsheets).

On a recent plant visit we found a manufacturer that, for good reason, had both automated, robotic test processes and manual human test processes. The robots were programmed to do various mechanical tests of buttons and switches, etc. The humans did the same tests, but were expected, due to the human element, to detect things that robots can’t always detect. The robots are great at doing what they do, and they can do it faster than the humans. However, what they can’t do (and likely will never be able to do) is assess instrumentation and controls from the human perspective. The manufacturer made a huge investment in the robotic testers, yet their human co-testers were recording their results on paper.

What’s the consequence? Tons of data that cannot be easily used. Sometimes it’s illegible. But, it can’t be easily used for correlation with the data the robots are collecting. If a robot is drifting out of calibration, data from human testing could point that out quickly, but not without some type of digital transformation regarding how the humans do their work. And likewise, doesn’t allow correlating test results among the testers (i.e., efficiency, quality and other objective comparisons among testers can’t easily be made).

When operator data moves from scribbled notes to structured and digitally captured data, operational awareness is improved, analysis can be rapid and not only better but also faster decisions can be made. All of this means opportunity: improved safety, reduced risks, and more efficient operations. In short, making more money.

While everyone is caught up in automation, robotics, IoT, converged communications and the like, don’t forget your operators and the human element. The humans are the ones that, ultimately, call a lot of the very important shots. The more aware they are about operating conditions, the better they can, and will, be.

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