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The crucial role of human factors in the future of technology

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa)

Technology is at the forefront of all new design processes, and in a relatively short space of time, has seen exponential growth, impacting immensely on almost everything that we do as part of our everyday lives, including how we work. 

In recent years, the adoption of digitisation and intelligent automation has grown across many industrial sectors but humans can often bear the brunt of responsibility when errors arise.  A key aspect of getting the design of the latest technologies right, and to determine how successful they will be, is how well we understand how they will impact on, and be best assimilated with, human operators and workforces. 

As levels of automation, informatics, robotics, sensors and mobile devices increase, it is particularly important to remember that human skills will still remain essential for many tasks, making the marriage between humans and machines critical to success. Human factors will therefore play an essential role in the future of technological advances, where people and technology are being integrated more closely and more intensively than ever before. Consequently, it is essential that we fully understand how to best design and operationalise both human and technological functions.

Human Factors (Ergonomics) provides a scientific approach to human-centred design, applying physiological and psychological principles to optimise the balance of people’s strengths and limitations. It has a long standing history of making important contributions to the design of human-centred systems, such as manufacturing technologies and processes for example, although often as a limited part of engineering design, and sometimes too late in the design process to have a real impact. The current challenge for industry is to include Human Factors with engineering and technology developments in order to optimise how workforces and infrastructure are prepared for the transformational changes being brought about by augmented digitisation and smart systems. 

At our recent event held at Cranfield University to launch a new progressive manufacturing group, CIEHF members were joined by a number of engineers and industrialists to explore this topic together. Iain Wright, chair of Parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee, opened the event by reminding us that as Britain’s manufacturing output still ranks as 9th in the world , Human Factors and Ergonomics, paired with technology, has a key role to play in ‘reshoring’ manufacturing back to the UK. He explained: “Whilst technology has the ability to increase productivity and reduce costs, it’s human factors that will enable us to fully integrate our supply chains and enable differentiation.” A number of speakers and delegates at the event presented case studies and examples of academic research which demonstrate the current growing appetite and need to build Human Factors into manufacturing and technological design processes, including Rolls-Royce and BAE systems. Another project that I am leading myself is a national network which is bringing together communities from design, engineering, business, computer science and human factors to understand how we can best work towards the ‘4th Industrial revolution’ and the move towards cyber physical systems. 

Developing industrial robots to collaborate with humans

Industrial robotics is one of the main technologies being developed for future systems and is therefore a good example of the important role for Human Factors in design and implementation. In terms of design, as we see the traditional segregation of large industrial robotics replaced by greater collaboration - enabled by sensor-based safety systems and by the introduction of smaller force-limited robotics - we will also see much closer human-robot interaction and proximity. 

The application of Human Factors in design activities is vital to ensure that we are creating robots that can effectively and safely work and interact with people. For example, humans come in all shapes and sizes and, unlike machines, bring high levels of unpredictability in their responses and behaviour. Human variability has been a traditional problem for the technology industry but the progressive trend for more flexible and adaptable workforces, means that differences between operators and their capabilities is being seen as more valuable in systems which require more frequent product and skills changes. Humans are able to respond to unusual or unexpected situations, and contribute towards the resilience of a system. So, as workforces become more mobile, diverse, and dependent on technology, Human Factors is needed to ensure the inclusive design of robots and intelligent systems to improve their capability for interpreting and responding to human operator requirements, and to ensure that they work collaboratively with humans as ‘joint cognitive systems’. 

In terms of implementation, another important role for the field of Human Factors is to assist in the design of the workforce introduction, operator training, and other strategies that will enhance people’s willingness to engage with robotics and automation. Worker acceptance is always critical to the success of new technology adoption, so if we are now facing the prospect of installing automation, which requires greater levels of communication and collaboration with the human worker, then it is clearly going to be even more imperative that we are better equipped to ensure that people understand how technologies are changing the workplace, and work towards acceptance of these technologies. 

Getting humans ready for the future workplace 

Inevitably, all of this means that future workplaces are going to look very different, and it is important that we consider the implications for design and implementation. Although it is expected that future workforces will be more mobile, it is also important to consider how to prepare existing workers who will be called upon to adapt their tasks, techniques, processes, and cultures. The application of human factors is the most appropriate approach for redeveloping and enhancing manual and cognitive skillsets, to prepare workers for changing work environments and new task demands in future production systems. For new systems to be successful, we need to ensure that people are not only able, but keen to work with them, and that the technologies genuinely enhance jobs, and have a positive impact on workplace productivity and satisfaction. Ergonomics and Human Factors offers the scientific and systematic approach needed for effective human-robot system design.

Professor Sarah Sharples, past president of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF), Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Knowledge Exchange at the University of Nottingham

Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa

Professor Sarah Sharples, is the Past President of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (CIEHF) and Associate Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research & Knowledge Exchange at the University of Nottingham.