• By Esben H. Østergaard, PhD
  • Factory Automation
Welcome to Industry 5.0
The "human touch" revolution is now under way

By Esben H. Østergaard, PhD

At HANNOVER MESSE 2017, like most industrial trade shows, the predominant theme was Industry 4.0. Although Industry 4.0 still has not scaled up to cover a significant percentage of manufacturing setups, its vision of near-total automation-and the resulting cost savings-has clearly captured the industry's imagination.

More importantly, even though the "lights-out" factory is still a rare phenomenon, the connected automation technologies that form the backbone of Industry 4.0 are being widely and increasingly deployed. They are making important differences in the manufacture of many types of products and\, in industries like healthcare, even the provision of services.

Role of robots

The use of robots in manufacturing has been on the rise since the 1960s, when they were first introduced as part of what technologists call Industry 3.0 (defined by programmable logic and advanced manufacturing). Robots grew up in the car industry, where they were used primarily to weld car bodies together. As technologies matured, companies began using robots in other areas, such as logistics and the medical and food industries. Starting in 2006, more robots were used outside the automotive industry than inside it.

The main driver behind the rise of industrial robots was a desire to reduce or eliminate the "three Ds"-dull, dangerous, and dirty jobs. But other important drivers included the need for consistency of quality and consistency of flow in manufacturing.

Today, robots are used not just in huge manufacturing and logistics facilities, but-thanks to the advent of smaller, more affordable, and easy-to-use collaborative robots ("cobots")-in small and medium-sized businesses too. The benefits of robotic automation include:

  • Robots improve the consistency of product quality and production line flow, meeting demand for high-quality products at lower cost.
  • They save workers from having to perform repetitive, tedious, and dangerous tasks.
  • Today's connected, or Industry 4.0, robots are able to consistently generate data on parts flow and process quality-data that artificial intelligence or old-school data analysis can use to optimize both a factory and manufacturing processes.
  • Thanks to greater inherent flexibility than special machines or other hard automation, robots enable greater product variation on a single line and-when integrated with logistics systems in Industry 4.0 setups-enable factories to produce variants based on the customer's choice of preconfigured options (often referred to as "mass customization").
  • Because robots cost almost the same everywhere in the world, they can help companies reshore manufacturing jobs that were transferred to low-cost labor countries and generally level the playing field.

Mass production to mass personalization

The fourth point above-that connected Industry 4.0 technologies, including robots, let manufacturers mass customize their products like never before-is worth looking at in detail. Let's take buying a car as an example: Many readers of this article grew up under Industry 3.0, which accompanied the rise of computing in business.

Buying a car in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s usually involved selecting a make and model at a car dealership, or-if nothing in the showroom quite fit the bill-perhaps ordering a car in a particular color and with certain extras, like air conditioning. Granted, that was a lot of choice compared to what Henry "as long as it's black" Ford had to offer (i.e., Industry 2.0). But it was nothing like "configuring" a car online today.

Car buyers now have so many options to choose from that any given customer has a good chance of ending up with a car that at least appears to be one of a kind. Now, if you are the owner of this car and live in a city of, say, half-a-million people, and if nobody else has a car that is exactly like yours, then you are driving a car that, to all appearances, was designed uniquely for you. Even if you are not a millionaire. Even if it is not a particularly expensive car.

Driven by a desire to make affordable, high-quality products that at least give the appearance of uniqueness, today's mass customization is largely enabled by Industry 4.0 technologies-including Internet connections between dealership ordering systems, supply chain systems, and even the robots on the car factory floor.

The customer makes choices from a growing list of options. This set of choices is configured and packed in just the right order. The truck arrives at the car factory at just the right minute. And the forklifts deliver the parts straight to the assembly line station where the customer's "unique" car appears.

This is Industry 4.0, and I believe it is the future of at least a large segment of consumer goods manufacturing. But it is not perfect. For producers, "lights-out" manufacturing provides few opportunities for adding value. It is all about lowering costs while ensuring product differentiation. For workers, it is even worse. Those who are employed in Industry 4.0 setups are expected to work like machines, "programmed" by management to perform an exact number of tasks every hour. It is work for robots, performed by humans only until technology advances far enough to replace the humans altogether. And it would not surprise me if a lean analysis of this type of factory found that it wastes human problem-solving skills, value-adding human creativity, and the critical and exclusively human ability to deeply understand customers.

Most importantly, the mass customization described above and enabled by Industry 4.0 is not enough. Because consumers want more. They want mass personalization, which can only be had when the human touch returns to manufacturing. This is what I call Industry 5.0.

By placing humans back at the center of industrial production, Industry 5.0 gives consumers the products they want and gives workers jobs that are more meaningful.

Psychology trumps technology

In the 1960s, as Industry 3.0 was starting to make waves in society, the Canadian media theory guru Marshall McLuhan proclaimed that "the medium is the message"-that new technologies determine changes in patterns of human thought and behavior. Technologists like me might wish that were the case-i.e., that we are the ones who decide how people act. But I do not believe that McLuhan was right. Human psychology trumps technology and puts it to its own uses.

People want to stand out, to be seen as unique, to express themselves through their choices-including their purchasing choices. Now, for the first time since the dawn of the Industrial Age, technologies are available that let people express themselves as individuals through personalized products. Not just low-tech products, but any product that can send the right signals. And not just products that only the super-rich can afford, but products within reach for people with modest incomes.

This desire for mass personalization forms the psychological and cultural driver behind Industry 5.0-which involves using technology to return value added by humans to manufacturing. Before we examine that in more detail, note that the desire for mass personalization also calls another Industry 3.0 assumption into question. The American futurist Alvin Toffler's influential 1970s work Future Shock saw too many choices as a problem for consumers, who would need to band together into groups to deal with choice overload. Yet in place of Toffler's "shock," we see consumers reveling in choice-with one person expressing herself by playing music from an infinite number of options online and another spinning vinyl on a Shinola turntable, handmade in Detroit.

The mass personalization and related trends also question common Industry 4.0 assumptions-especially the oft-expressed but wrong-headed claim that robots are "taking over" and "stealing our jobs." We have found that companies that deploy collaborative robots end up employing more people, not fewer, than they did before they went robotic. Instead of replacing workers, the cobots have helped grow these companies' businesses. We expect that, just as with Industry 1.0, Industry 2.0, and Industry 3.0, this latest wave of industrial automation will result in net job growth, not loss.

To be clear, there are huge swaths of product types that nobody wants personalized and for which Industry 4.0 setups, with their traditional industrial robots, are perfect. Nobody wants a personalized drywall anchor, engine block, or lawnmower blade. If these products can be made at a minimal cost in a lights-out factory, it benefits everyone.

Industry 5.0 products, on the other hand, empower people to realize the basic human urge to express themselves-even if they have to pay a premium price. Making these products requires what we call the human touch.

Return of the human touch

The personalized products consumers will demand most and pay most for are products with the distinctive mark of human care and craftsmanship. Fine watches, craft beers, designer items of every kind, and even (I saw it in the supermarket recently) black salt from Iceland, hand dyed with local coal.

Products like these can only be made through human involvement-human engagement. This human touch, above all, is what consumers seek to express their identity through the products they buy. These consumers accept technology-they do not mind if automation, for example, is a part of the manufacturing process. But they crave the personal imprint of human designers and craftspeople, who produce something special and unique through their personal effort. This is personalization. This is the feeling of luxury. This is the future.

This Industry 5.0 trend is more anti-industrial than industrial. It is a return to something earlier, to a time before industrialization, when a gift, for example, was something someone you knew spent months knitting or carving or creating by hand. It was just for you, because the person who made the gift knew you personally and thus knew how to make a gift for you and no one else.

But how do the human designers and craftspeople of today make products that live up to the quality standards people expect? How do they make products at a price people can afford? Collaborative robots are a big part of the answer.

High mix/low volume is part of the fifth industrial revolution that brings smaller, more personalized batches of products to market, aided by cobots. Add a welding torch at the end of the arm tooling and you have a welding robot; the next day you can add a camera for quality inspection or a pneumatic suction cup for pick and place on the same cobot arm.

Enter collaborative robots

Collaborative robots are exactly the tools companies need to produce the personalized products consumers demand today. Cobots bring the human touch to the masses.

Far from fenced-off industrial robots that replace human workers with automated processes, collaborative robots enhance human craftsmanship with the speed, accuracy, and precision required to make modern products with a human touch. Although consumers might want to express themselves through market-square baskets and hand-painted flowerpots, they also want to do it with their smartphones, luxury headsets, and "personalized" car designs.

Collaborative robots are essentially power tools that give craftspeople-operators-superhuman powers in terms of speed and accuracy. That is what it takes to make industrially manufactured products with a human touch.

Broader implications

As briefly mentioned earlier, what I am calling Industry 5.0 is in fact not an incremental development from Industry 4.0. It is not just more ramped up automation. It is, in an important sense, the end of automation-but an "end" that is enabled at least in part by robotic automation. That is the great irony in the latest leap forward in automation-whether or not you call it Industry 5.0. It is a return to what in many respects resembles a preindustrial form of goods production, but one that is enabled by the most advanced industrial automation technologies, starting with collaborative robots.

Our company does not wax too philosophical. But I suggest that what I am referring to as Industry 5.0 addresses-at least in some small way-what Marx called alienation, the idea that, through modern industrial production, workers lose control over their lives by losing control over their work.

They become automatons, who only go through the motions of human labor, without contributing to or benefiting from it in any meaningful way. By putting human beings back at the center of industrial production-aided by tools such as cobots-Industry 5.0 not only gives consumers the products they want today, but it gives workers jobs that are more meaningful than factory jobs have been in well over a century.

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About The Authors

Esben H. Østergaard, PhD, is chief technology officer at Universal Robots and is responsible for the enhancement of existing UR cobots and the development of new products. Østergaard is one of the inventors of UR cobots. During his years as researcher and assistant professor in robotics and user interfaces at the University of Southern Denmark, he created the foundation for a reinvention of the industrial robot. He also worked as a research scientist at USC Robotics Labs in Southern California and at AIST in Tokyo as a visiting researcher.