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Finding creative ways to improve human quality of life is one of the roles of an engineer. When it comes to technological developments, engineering experience has taught us that doing the right thing at the beginning of the design phase or, in other words, taking a preventative approach, is the way to go.
Among other goals, the new Industry 4.0 production paradigm seeks to support or enhance human capabilities and skills, and assist in training workers. The literature shows that important changes will take place in our organizations—and have already begun in some circles—as to design, management, work organization and interactions between tasks and equipment. The human factor will remain essential in production systems, and design must be centred on these needs. All social stakeholders involved in the changes will need to be consulted and to participate in these developments.
The manufacturing sector, for example, faces challenges like tailor-made mass production, productivity, competition, labour shortage, trade attractiveness, and an aging worker population. All production systems are covered by Industry 4.0. The most studied activities to date in the literature are assembly, maintenance and order preparation. In occupational health and safety (OHS), development interests lie in human error mitigation, musculoskeletal injury risks and industrial hygiene (e.g. exposure to contaminants), development and use of intelligent protective equipment, alert transmissions, and danger zone identification allowing workers to withdraw from certain situations. Smart objects—exoskeletons supporting manual handling or functioning as sitting-standing workstations, smart gloves and smart glasses, to name a few—are now appearing on assembly lines. In 4.0, production systems are becoming more and more integrated and complex—process interdependencies, large number of variables and arbitration to manage—and focused on products with high added value based on advanced technologies or knowledge. A sustainable business must balance its performance imperatives with the well-being of its workers. How can this arbitration be performed?
Transitional Research Projects
German research teams (TU Darmstadt) have developed tools to assess change readiness being brought to organizations by 4.0. They also offer tools to monitor implementations. Nevertheless, many questions concerning relevance, usability, risk, and acceptability still remain. Professor Nadeau has more than 25 years of experience in intervention or applied research with various industry sectors, including manufacturing, mining and aircraft maintenance. Together with her collaborators and students of the Applied Human Factors Lab, she focuses on the usability and integrated risk management aspects of complex systems and digital technologies.
Virtual dummies, field studies, laboratory testing, or expert elicitation are used to find solutions to workload issues, human-equipment interface, work-environment compatibility, human error or complex decision-making in uncertain situations, and real-life conditions of use. It is not enough to have access to a lot of data. The data need to be collected efficiently and effectively, then any relevant data (quantitative and qualitative) must be put together at minimum cost, integrating new technological tools into the current processes and taking into account various issues and constraints, including workplace health and safety (OHS). The integrated risk management models (operations and OHS) offered to partners are based on artificial intelligence, resilience engineering, or systemic engineering.
Digital technologies will have a swift and significant impact on our work. Several uses must still be defined. Potential opportunities and earnings—improvements in quality, turnaround, and more—are second to none. Challenges will have to be overcome with all the technical and scientific rigour that engineers are able to demonstrate and for which they have been trained. Developments will need to be initiated though systemic multi- and inter-disciplinary teams to ensure quality of life for all workers throughout their career.
Sylvie Nadeau is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at ÉTS and the director of the Applied Human Factors Lab. She is an Industrial Engineer and expert in ergonomics and human factors engineering.
Program : Mechanical Engineering
Research laboratories : Applied Human Factors Lab