We continue to live in a world of social distancing and potential quarantine. At the same time, there is social upheaval regarding conformity to government mandates and policing practices. I take solace in the fact that in the face of continual upheaval, the need for engineers to solve problems remains constant and is unchanged. As I write this we are on the cusp of launching Americans from American soil into orbit, the thirst for green initiatives is driving new technology, changes in how people work is forcing increased innovation in how we collaborate, and the response to medical challenges is resulting in creative problem solving that is crossing industry lines.
Therefore, I remain optimistic about the long term prospect for engineering and our society. These times are not like the dark ages when the search for knowledge and technological progress died, but we are certainly dark times for individuals facing discrimination, food scarcity, poverty, and the threat of infection. Societal changes will be required to address some of these problems, but continual innovation will be a necessary element as we move forward.
This month I’m going to talk about automation…again. I covered this topic in Edition 06, specifically addressing “bots” and automation of our lives, whether we wanted or forced. That was a topic that had many negative undertones, spanning from loss of control of our privacy to questions about safety. This newsletter goes the opposite direction and talks about the value of automation and how it can result in significant improvements in quality of life. The focus will be primarily in its ability to reduce workload and increase safety.
I finished the first iteration of the project analysis program prototype not long after completing the last newsletter. I spent some time cleaning up some details, improving usability, and determining how to best market the capability. It is still a text file and command line driven set of scripts, but I’ve been impressed by the ability to create something so powerful with an open source programming language and enough time on your hands. I want to use this new tool to enhance the value SES can bring to a project. A flyer has been posted about the ability to perform complex risk and uncertainty modeling on the services page (shameless plug). I’m hoping that enough interest is generated so I can justify fully developing the program into a marketable product as opposed to an SES service.
This month has also found me helping my wife launch a new initiative for her company as her business model was completely upended with the inability to teach students in person. Its made me her webmaster, IT department, photographer, lighting designer, and literature reviewer. The result is an online platform that furthers percussion education through masterclasses, regular group exercises, and private lessons. If percussion has ever been a passion, you should check it out at www.klspercussion.com (shameless plug #2). It has given me the ability to learn new skills and increase my respect for those fancy sites that have a bunch of active content.
Our house has been very busy re-inventing companies, cooking whatever is available, and providing some sort of education to our children. It’s no surprise that it took so long to get a newsletter out this month!
Automation is mostly our way of reducing our workload. This can be viewed as either “innovative” or “lazy”. In my perspective, the motivation is the determining factor. Motivations that are for pure convenience or entertainment without consideration of consequence are those I consider lazy implementation of automation. Motivations that stem from a desire to increase comfort, productivity, safety, or personal growth potential are innovative. Of course, there’s a lot of grey area, and even with the right motivations, automation can result in ugly consequences (as discussed in Edition 06). For this newsletter I will keep it simple and talk mostly about mechanical automations that improve quality of life and safety, briefly touching on the topic of unintended consequences.
When I think about improving quality of life, I think about two factors: reducing workload, and improving workplace conditions. The former allows for either increased throughput, decreased time on a job, or both. The latter improves safety and comfort. Both result in improved work environments and increased creativity.
Reducing workload is usually the first factor addressed – and mostly for the purpose of improving throughput. This is not surprising as manufacturing companies have the capital to invest in automation, and their investment is primarily focused on increasing near-term profits. This is a very short-sighted approach as long-term benefits generally reap greater rewards, but they are much harder to quantify to shareholders. The result is usually some reduction in repetitive actions and strenuous activity that yields less injury, fewer errors, and less exhaustion to the worker, so even this short-sighted approach yields real improvements for the worker and company.
Reducing workload also means less time required by an employee to make a specific quantity of widgets. The corollary is that less of the worker’s time is needed making a widget to maintain similar profit margins. This doesn’t necessarily mean more vacation (though it should), but it is time gained that could be used to provide additional training, provide physical relief from a strenuous work environment, and increase their contribution in other areas. Companies that take advantage of automation in this manner have a longer view in mind and are investing back into their people with the tool of automation – definitely a positive synergy.
Improving workplace conditions is less likely to be a primary objective for most companies, but this is changing as the perception of responsibility towards its employees is shifting. Companies are also starting to realize that employees that are happier are more likely to work efficiently when they believe that the employer has their safety and comfort in mind. To that end, the low- lying fruit is to make the workplace safer. Both parties readily appreciate the rewards from this use of automation: the company has less time lost to injured employees and fewer medical costs, and the employee feels safer and is hurt less on the job. Implementation of automation for safety is also fairly simple. Where there is a dangerous evolution, any automation that reduces the worker’s interface with a dangerous condition is an improvement. This can be as simple as proximity sensors and jigs all the way to completely roboticized welders and brakes.
Worker comfort is a secondary consideration for most companies and seen as a “nice to have”. What is often overlooked is that comfort is usually based on some need for improved ergonomics that reduce worker fatigue resulting in fewer mistakes and overall better efficiency. Human-machine interface has been a hot topic for the last couple of decades, but as there are more and more robots integrated with our work environment, the need to ensure that interface is more “human” than machine is becoming especially apparent.
Regardless of company objective, reduction of workload and improvement of workplace conditions has a cumulative effect of improving worker quality of life. If automation is properly leveraged, the result will be worker that is efficient, healthy, creative, flexible, and overall happier.
We covered safety in the context of improving workplace conditions, but the safety in this section is about how end products automate our lives to improve safety. Great examples are found in the transportation industry, including simple technologies like anti-lock brakes all the way to self-driving cars and automatic safety systems on rockets.
To realize this safety, we abdicate some level of control over a system – something that is intellectually difficult to do if we’re used to having control. It’s interesting that we readily abdicate that control over our personal information (again, part of the Edition 06 discussion), but we are much more reluctant to give up the control over the physical world. As in all things, this is a risk-reward calculation, which is often poorly informed. It takes a significant saturation of the market of automation technology before it is entrusted to our safety – regardless of the testing, quality control, etc. it undergoes.
As an example, I’ll look at one of the lowest levels of safety in automation – anti-lock brakes. Most don’t consider this automation, but it does sense wheel slip, pedal position, and overrides operator action to pump the brakes. I don’t think many would pass by a car with anti-lock brakes because it’s automation is too intrusive, or doubt its efficacy. But at the same time, where it the quality documentation that the manufacturer tested the design and certified it? After all, it can override brake input. This really came to a head with the airbag recall, but even so, there was no outcry for removing airbags from cars because of the extreme market saturation.
On the other end are automations that have proven their effectiveness, but are constantly defending themselves against criticism. Returning to the car industry, automatic emergency brake systems are a prime example. There are many instances, widely cited, where the system failed to prevent an accident. I think it misses the point. Without the system, the accident would have happened regardless. More important is how many accidents it avoided, and whether it has ever caused an accident. Clearly public perception is everything as these relevant aspects of the automation are never covered – instead focusing on singular incidents that were not initiated by the automation.
The most obvious unintended consequence is that automation takes the place of people’s jobs. There is no question that many hard-working people are being pushed out of companies because their skills are no longer needed since a robot can now do the work. This is inevitable, so instead of stopping the progress of automation, we should look at how we can embrace this shift in the workplace requirements.
It’s hard to tell a factory worker of 40 years to learn how to code a computer – and we shouldn’t need to. The needs will not disappear overnight, so we can rightfully find a productive place in industry through retirement. What we can’t do is train someone to take a job that will not exist. This is where our education system and industry needs to lead in order to prevent the tragedy of mass unemployment caused by automation.
We should also consider that in a continually innovating society, skilled craftsmen will always lead new industries before the robots can take over. Who’s going to teach those robots how to get the job done? Channeling skilled labor to support cutting edge industries would be a far more valuable than using those people to do something a robot could accomplish. The solar industry was a prime example. During its initial explosive growth, much of the equipment was custom manufactured and required skilled labor, either for production or installation. As the industry became more mainstream, automation was able to supplant this skilled labor, but only because a person was there first to determine how to craft the product. Flexibility is key since even though the industries will change, the need for the skills will be needed as new industries emerge prior to automation.
Disconnection from our physical world is another aspect that is of concern. When automation does too much for us, we loose interaction with our physical world which degrades some valuable life skills. Certain cooking skills, the ability to sew, driving a manual transmission vehicle and others are great examples. None of these are inherently necessary to be productive in this world, as most can be replicated by automation of some sort. But learning and practicing a variety of skills helps us understand the constraints of our physical world, view a problem from multiple perspectives, and help our complex human brains develop as it sifts through new knowledge. Sometimes there is value in doing that division long-hand vs. using a calculator when you’re in elementary school – even if you never do division long-hand again. And don’t ask to drive my car if you can’t drive a stick.
Any good engineer will seem inherently lazy if observed from the wrong perspective. Not in the sense that they don’t like to work (because most of the engineers I know are sadists when it comes to their workload) but they don’t like to do busywork. When properly directed, that “laziness” leads to problem solving that inevitably leads to some form of automation. In this rare case, I’m going to use a well-known quip as it fits the topic so well. It really is the basis for why we should embrace automation if we choose to progress.
Work smarter, not harder.