Human-Centered Automation: Everything You Need to Know

Throughout the ages, automation has focused primarily on reducing costs and increasing productivity.

From Jacquard mechanical looms to ATMs and industrial robots, automation innovators sought to leverage the business opportunities brought by technology improvements.

Until now, those automation tools have contributed to the social and economic prosperity of western countries. They have made possible the abundance state that we enjoy through high-volume and low-cost consumer good access.

But, with the universal adoption of automation solutions in the workplace, there’s no doubt that today’s automation initiatives will leave their mark on labor distribution.

If you’ve been subject to the fear of automation displacement, it’s easy to wonder if these automation projects are still beneficial and not harmful to stakeholders’, society’s, and especially workers’ interests.

It’s time to critically assess the impact of companies’ automation projects on both the economic and social sides. And there’s one framework that helps us do that: the human-centered automation scale.


Cost-Focused vs Human-Centric Automation

Ford Cleveland Engine Plant

Let’s start with one historic example of automation excellence.

From the 1910s to the 1960s, Ford Corps factories had been delivering impressive engineering feats and made possible unseen productivity enhancements.

From these production plants, emerged no less iconic industrial innovations than specialized drilling, painting, screw driving machines, as well as automatic belt conveyors -every device that helped achieve what 50 men couldn’t do alone.

All these visionary creations came from the secret motivation of one man: Henry Ford.

Henry Ford universally acknowledged goal was “to reduce hand labor, to give the operations more speed and to conserve floor space.” That’s why he daily pushed its industrial engineer to test new machining configurations and experiment with the latest industrial inventions

These engineers soon joined hands in what Delmar Harder, Ford manufacturing vice-president, would create as the first automation department.

After the Second world war, at a time when labor was lacking and consumer demand exploding, Ford factories needed new ways to reduce human input, reduce cost, and speed up production lines. 

By “automation”, Harder meant exactly what drove Ford’s thirst for innovation: a bold engineering move to optimize every manufacturing process step.

The department was made of innovative minds, whose one of the most remarkable achievements was a fully-driven automation factory: the Cleveland Engine Plant, from 1949 to 1959. Here, interconnected conveying equipments automatically fed tooling machines and enabled full-cycle time monitoring.

One result of that automation was a reduction of labor minutes by 49 percent and required 17 percent less floor space than traditional assembly methods.

And yet, despite widespread concern from labor unions, Ford discharged no one for technological reasons. In fact, Ford claimed in 1954 that it had added 50,000 workers to its payroll since creating the Automation Department.

Moreover, Ford’s industry and fearless innovation contributed to one of the 20th century’s best successes: the first example of mass production with low-cost and consumer-affordable cars, ushering in a new era of abundance.

With such an example of socially and economically beneficial automation, how could we possibly critically assess it?

At first glance, it seems counter-intuitive, but you need to dig deeper to judge the outcome.


What is the Human-Centered Automation Framework ?

Source : global.toyota

Innovators and business entities have always seen automation as a goal in itself. Whether Ford corporation, robot manufacturers, or RPA distributors, they have all aimed at fostering automation for the sake of technological advancement and economic growth. But that goal doesn’t necessarily align with the society and workforce goals.

Researchers Meera Sampath and Pramod P. Khargonekar have tried to put into perspective the real social and economic impact of automation initiatives. Instead of assuming the positive effect of innovation, they have looked at them through their real strategic value and objective consequences. They have divided automation-driven companies into 4 levels of automation awareness.

Level 0: cost-effective automation

The first level of awareness is purely economically-driven. Those companies have set a clear goal to reduce the cost of labor-intensive tasks via automated solutions. As they only see labor as cost-intensive, they have sought to remove any human input on repetitive and rule-based business processes.

This level includes big companies leading RPA initiatives with clear cost-saving goals. RPAs help handle business-critical processes via self-learning bots. But those RPA projects have often struggled a lot to scale, as they get rid of the human flexibility and judgment necessary to face complex use cases.

Level 1: Performance-focused automation

In contrast to the first level, the second level goes a step further, as those companies consider the human contribution to productivity increase. They are looking to automate the repetitive and computational tasks that humans aren’t good at, without putting them out of the process. That means human workers are still there to monitor and intervene, while automation tools are replacing them in a significant part of their job.

One example is the automation system put in place in Amazon warehouses. Amazon automation projects are all about facilitating order picking via autonomous robots. While workers use their dexterity to pick packages of all sizes, robots lift them and transport them from one place to another.

Another example is the one described above, the Ford Factories. Ford engineers focused on improving throughput by motorizing part transportation and transformation. Workers waited for the parts to come to them and transformed them within automated cells. Ford inventors aimed at facilitating human hands on tedious and repetitive tasks to get more productive.

Level 2: Worker-centric Automation

With level 2 of automation awareness, companies are adopting a genuine human-centered approach. Like Level 1 companies, they are actively automating error-prone and time-intensive business processes, while still leaving human workers in control.

However, what makes them different is that they are proactively training workers to fit in the new work organization brought by automation. They believe that automation is ultimately about augmenting human skills and making work easier and more efficient. So they adapt the work structure to leverage the collaboration between automation tools and skilled workers.

Digital-driven companies like Starbucks or Haier well embody this approach. Starbucks seeks to automate, reduce, or eliminate 17 additional hours of tasks every week. For example, instead of writing the schedule by hand, store managers will create digital schedules. The inventory of to-go items, like juices, will also be automated, instead of an employee counting them several times a day. But it’s all part of the plan to give employees more time to interact with customers.

The Fridge-selling company Haier provides its customers with real-time purchase recommendations to help them fill their shelves and optimize their meals. Such innovation automates many tasks: customer communication, after-sales service, and product design. But, most of all, this automation shifts the center of value creation within the company.

Instead of marketers and product designers, user data and analytics drive the customer experience. In that sense, Haier’s leadership has given more initiatives to customer representatives not just to receive their complaints, but to coach users on their eating habits.

Level 3: Socially Responsible Automation

Level 3 embraces an even more holistic approach to automation projects. They not only consider the HR and organizational impact of automation on their companies but also on the society and economy as a whole. They are aware of the negative effects of the widespread use of automation (lay-offs, loss of control and meaning, economic inequalities…). But they want to share the value brought by automation. They believe automation can bring quality jobs and a renewed sense of autonomy and freedom.

This idea is at the core of Toyota’s human-powered automation approach. Toyota doesn’t primarily aim to reduce production expenses, but instead aims at smarter use of materials for performance and fuel efficiency; and thus more economical global sharing of engine and vehicle models. They see performance optimization as a way to make technology accessible to everyone and to make it less wasteful.

Toyota’s corporate culture also values people as indispensable assets. Robots are meant to help assemblers do their jobs better, stimulating employee innovation and when possible facilitating cost gains. They even eliminate automation solutions to preserve workers’ core expertise and responsibilities in the company’s overall mission of producing high-quality vehicles.


How to plan a Human-centric Automation Project ?

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash

1. Review task allocation and which task brings the most value to automate

You can’t automate everything at once. To focus on the tasks with the most potential for automation, you have to map out the workflows your workers are getting through every day.

That way, you also can spot the work where your employees are bringing the most value, and where automation is detrimental to your value-generating process.

2. Reengineer job structure and train people in new positions

Automating often means losing the feedback and continuous improvement the old work organization provided.

To revive your work structure, you need to reallocate human resources to make them fit in and complement the new business processes. That means also retraining people to handle the new tools and grow uniquely human skills.

3. Assess the net impact of your project for every stakeholder

To achieve a net positive automation outcome, you need to think about every stakeholder’s interest and not only the economically-interested ones.

Workers, managers, governments, customers, and partners are all depending on your company to freely share the fruits of your innovations. Make sure you have them on the table when discussing your automation project and explaining what it entails for them.

4. Preferably opt for Human-Machine Interaction Design

When you get everything on board, it’s time to choose the best automation solutions for your project. Autonomous technologies can feel seducing, but they are not always the best choice to keep a consistent and harmonious corporate culture.

Instead, you can find many products and designs that are getting the most out of human-machine collaboration. For example, collaborative robots or no-code tools are empowering workers to achieve more while helping them derive more satisfaction from their work.

5. Address socially beneficial goals

As automation projects can generate a tremendous amount of value for your company, there’s room to invest in long-term goals that are both socially and economically beneficial.

Whether environmental, societal, or talent-related engagement, purpose-driven automation projects strengthen both your work organization and your corporate culture. So it’s a win-win situation.


Does this automation-centered approach still sound like a dream waiting to come true? There is only one thing I see here: a new journey is just getting started. Follow me for more coverage.

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