Tech-enhanced humans are getting ready for industry 4.0

Think Progress Team

Monday 21 August 2017

Adam Jensen is a security specialist who can see through walls, jump a couple of storeys high and even make himself invisible to the human eye. Needless to say, he is highly sought after – but you will never be able to call on his unique services. For Jensen is a character in the video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, whose every skill, sense and ability has been enabled or enhanced by advanced technology.

According to the expert who advised on how such augmentations could take place, we might be plugging upgrades into ourselves sooner than we think. Will Rossellini was the consultant who helped bring 2016’s Deus Ex instalment to life, and in a TED talk a year earlier, he suggested 2027 as the year humans will effectively become cyborgs. When he said this, it might have been tongue in cheek – Mankind Divided is set in 2027, after all.

But as talk of robots taking your place at work ratchets up, we’re seeing examples of people getting their preemptive strikes against the machines in sooner. Industry 4.0 – the increasing automation of manufacturing processes and data sharing – is taking hold, and corporations around the globe are investing in technology that will make working conditions safer, happier and more productive.

Google Glass gets planes off the ground faster

For the Boeing technicians responsible for the miles of wiring that go into each aircraft, the CTRL+F keyboard command was their most-used tool. It helped them navigate the highly complex wiring road maps they referred to on their laptops.

That was until 2014, when Boeing started experimenting with Google Glass as a way to reduce the amount of flitting from screen to job in hand. By integrating an app called APX Skylight with Google’s headset, technicians can see instructions without having to divert attention away from the work in front of them, leaving their hands free to cut and connect wire.

Boeing engineer Jason DeStories told CIO that Google Glass can “reduce [a technician’s] time from intent to action”. He’s right. Boeing says production time is now 25 per cent faster, while, crucially, error rates have been cut in half.

A helping hand at BMW

Paul Günther, co-founder of ProGlove, noticed during his time as a tour guide at BMW’s Munich plant that all the workers wore gloves. If these could be turned into tools as well as protective aids, he realised, the car manufacturer’s quest for time-saving wins could be boosted.

Now, BMW’s spare parts plant in Dingolfing is introducing Günther’s smartglove, which has a built-in scanner that uploads data to a server wirelessly. The intelligent glove replaces handheld barcode scanners and means that workers can use both hands to hold items and scan more quickly.

It only shaves a second or two off each task, but BMW thinks that amounts to some 4000 work minutes being freed up every day.

Harnesses that reduce back stress

At Lowe’s, the US home improvement chain, some staff have a striking new uniform: an exoskeleton. The company, some of whose workers move bags of cement and big boxes around for much of the day, is trialling a harness that aids lifting by redistributing weight along carbon fibre rods.

Meanwhile, Hyundai is experimenting with a mechanical power suit that can help workers lift hundreds of kilos in one go.

A New York firm, Kinetic, uses Intel technology to alert workers wearing a smart harness when their lifting technique could cause injury. A built-in module monitors the stance someone takes as they lift, and sends data back to a computer to be viewed by managers wanting to reduce workplace injury.

As the possibilities offered by robotics and automation get evermore attention, the message is clear. If you can’t beat robots, join them.


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