Making Factories Better Places for Humans to Work

Intel Innovators: Irene Petrick and Faith McCreary, both of Intel’s Internet of Things Group

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Faith McCreary (left) and Irene Petrick work in Intel’s Internet of Things Group. Authors of a 2018 research paper on “Industry 4.0,” they interviewed people – CEOs to factory workers – at 133 manufacturers. (Credit: Walden Kirsch/Intel Corporation)
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Who: Irene Petrick, director of Industrial Innovation in the Industrial Solutions Division, Internet of Things Group; Faith McCreary, principal engineer, experience architect, and researcher, Internet of Things Group

How they would describe their work to a 10-year-old: “We imagine the factory of the future that is smart enough to take care of itself most of the time,” Faith says.

Hundreds of interviews later: Both Ph.Ds in Intel’s Internet of Things Group, Irene and Faith came to Intel after careers in consulting, research and academia. After they interviewed employees – CEOs to factory workers – at 133 manufacturers, they co-authored a research paper on “Industry 4.0.” One key finding: 59 percent of people in manufacturing want “intelligent” solutions to take on work described as manual or labor-intensive.

More: Read about all Intel Innovators

A factory that knows: Irene offers an example of an intelligent solution: “In an auto manufacturing plant, machines will ‘know’ when they need maintenance; they will collaborate with each other. Mobile robots will move materials rather than conveyor belts, and much of this manual labor will happen without people.”

Machines doing what they do best: “In the factory of the future, people will do what people do best and machines will do what machines do best,” Faith says. “Machines do the repetitive tasks and even learn to anticipate how to do those tasks better. The factory of the future will be constantly learning how to improve its operations.”

Less perspiration, more inspiration: Today, many factory environments require hard physical labor. In the future, maybe not so much. Thinking again of that hypothetical auto plant, Irene says, “Instead of the back-breaking work of the assembly line, people in the future will spend their time troubleshooting and improving overall operations. Their work will be more creative and strategic, and their work will not be rooted to the factory floor.”

Less repetition, fewer hazards: “A lot of what goes on in a factory today is hard on people,” Faith says, “either because of the repetitive nature of the work or the potential hazards. Done right, technology has the potential to help eliminate the negatives of factory work and make it more uniquely human.”

Technology’s effect on the worker: Irene explains that we often don’t give enough thought to the effects of technology on people – or the reverse. “There is nothing worse than creating a solution and then looking for a problem to solve with it,” Irene says.

In their factory interviews, Faith and Irene found an undercurrent of distrust or even fear of “letting go of human control in manufacturing processes.” Many of the people they talked with – especially on the factory floor – said they worried about being left behind as manufacturing becomes “smarter” and less reliant on human sweat or outmoded skills.

“Getting people and technologies to work together means that we need to understand them both better,” Faith says.

Listening to factory workers: Faith says there’s a wrong way and a right way to make factories smarter. “Most technology is introduced in the factory in a very top-down fashion.  If we can change that, and actually start leveraging the knowledge and passion of the people in the factory in the process, imagine what we could do? Our research shows that a majority of people in the factory world – from people on the factory floor to execs in the C-suite – agree there are opportunities for change. The right approach is to tap into this consensus and use it to speed the adoption of the future smart factory.”

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