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Man and Machine Collaborating on the Factory Floor: A Nightmare or a Match Made in Heaven?

Whenever mankind works together with machinery, new methods are needed to cater to human unpredictability—and to ensure that robots can anticipate it.
By Pieter Simoens

Digital Twins for Our Smart Factories
To give Industry 5.0 every chance of success, it will be crucial to advance communication between the different actors (humans and machines). Of course, machines already communicate with each other. For instance, at large car factories, integrators, with the help of standardized protocols, ensure that machines (sometimes from different providers) know enough about each other to meet production targets. But let us be honest: in today's factories, every machine basically does its own bit of (assembly line) work, and little real communication is required.

In the future, once machines become more autonomous and need to anticipate each other's actions, communication will become more difficult. For example, imagine two robots approaching each other on the factory floor. In this situation, how can one robot anticipate how the other is going to move? ("Will he go left or right? And what should I do?") That is before taking into account the positions, actions and reactions of other robots nearby.

To manage this type of situation, you could make a digital copy (or twin) of the factory in the cloud. As such, you would create a digital model of the physical factory floor, a model that would continuously update itself based on real-time sensor data, in which all decisions and their outcomes were simulated in real time. In this scenario, all authority would be hosted at a central location from which all instructions would depart, and the robots and machines on the factory floor would be the physical result of what was happening in that virtual world.

At first glance, this dictator model seems an ideal solution to deal with complex situations on the factory floor while ensuring that production targets are met. Technically, such a scenario is already perfectly feasible; the only things you would need are a fast data connection between the physical machines in the production area and the virtual brain, and a lot of processing power.

There are, however, two caveats to this. The first is purely economical in nature. Let us not forget that industrial settings are often complicated and competitive places where many actors collaborate (suppliers and partners, and sometimes also competitors). In such a context, the protection of data, privacy and information is enormously important—which does not fit the dictator model scenario, in which the central brain must have access to all possible types of data (including competitively sensitive data) to do its job properly. For many business leaders, having to share this information would be the ultimate nightmare.

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