As a presenter at a recent material-handling conference, I took the opportunity to attend sessions on topics of maintenance, workforce development, and automated handling and sorting systems. Intriguing discussions on the “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” a theme of recent World Economic Forum events, were a highlight for me. Technological advancements associated with this era are already entering our plants. Their larger impact on businesses and our socio-economic systems, however, could be overwhelming. Are we ready?
Industrial Revolutions 101
First things first: What were the previous Industrial Revolutions all about?
Most of us learned about the First Industrial Revolution in world-history and social-studies classes. The productivity of craftsmen, tradesmen, and artisans was transformed by steam, water power, and mechanization of traditional work that led to cotton-spinning machinery and railroads. Beginning in the late 1750s, it ramped up through the 1870s.
The Second Industrial Revolution was characterized by manufacturing and the division of labor, which included the introduction of electric power, interchangeable parts and, eventually, mass production with assembly lines. It spanned the 1890s through about 1970.
Many readers cut their world-of-work teeth during the Third Industrial Revolution, which began the transition from pneumatic logic to electrical controls, to microprocessor-control strategies. The digital age was upon us with information technology (IT), computer mainframes transitioning to personal computers, automated-manufacturing systems, industrial robotics, and the Internet. This timeline runs from the 1970s through today or, as some are forecasting, through 2020.
The work processes and enabling mechanisms and technologies of the world’s first three Industrial Revolutions grew at accelerated rates: 120 years to 80 years to 50 years respectively. If we are to learn from that pattern of growth and explosion of the Internet of Things (IoT)/Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), we should fasten our seat belts. The rates of change and emergence and adoption of advanced technologies are increasing exponentially.
What does this have to do with readers of Maintenance Technology? Plenty. We’re on the cusp of the most significant changes ever in modern industry. They will have a far-reaching impact on how business is done and how society interacts.
Creating false expectations
Hearing high-level engineering and technical experts discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution, I became enamored with the possibilities. The speakers frequently referred to totally automated material-handling systems where everything is autonomous. The only human involvement is overall arrangement, control, and interlinking system components. Amazing!
If I were a chief financial officer, chief information officer, or chief operating officer, though, what would I have heard? “Automated machinery and facilities can, and will, replace people.” Wow! No more worries about overtime, healthcare, human error, grievances, vacation, cost-of-living issues, a $15 minimum wage, and the list goes on.
Everyone—literally everyone—I hear waxing eloquently about the future of automated systems and facilities, though, seems to have forgotten about maintenance. That’s not unusual. Many people tend to think of maintenance as fixing things that people damage. From their perspective, if we remove the erratic and ever variable human element, all is well. Right? Wrong!
Technical skills must prevail
Automated machines and systems must be fabricated, assembled, and commissioned by people. Once these precision and technologically advanced machines enter the workplace, they must be programmed and integrated by yet another group of people. At that point, such machines should basically be ready to operate autonomously with technology that has been proven to work efficiently, and effectively. Are they really?
This is where some of the technological promises of autonomous equipment and systems fall apart. Those modern marvels still require maintenance. Sure, many now have, and will continue to expand their condition-monitoring/self-diagnostic capabilities. But, can they fully maintain themselves? Probably not.
In fact, maintenance of highly automated systems just became more complex because of automation’s sensors, transmitters, transducers, control loops, logic controllers, Wi-Fi networks, software, signal cables, connectors, circuit boards, and many other components that make the base system, machine, vehicle, or conveyor function without the aid of a hands-on human.
Managing the base machine
I’ve said for decades that automation by itself does nothing. Automation (whatever it is) must connect to a base system or machine. These can be configured in many different ways, including as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), conveyors, sorting systems, forked vehicles, pallet movers, tuggers, deck vehicles, and self-driving vehicles (cars, trucks, trains, and airport people movers).
Let’s focus on forked AGVs. This is basically a forklift truck that has been fully automated. The components of a forked AGV still require routine (periodic) maintenance, and an occasional repair, including, among other things, its:
- mast system, rollers, sliders, chains, guards, hoses
- hydraulic-lift cylinder(s), tilt cylinders, hoses, control valves, pump, fluid filters, fluids
- forks, carriage
- drivetrain wheels, tires, drive axle, transmission, steering
- electric-motor connections, wiring, brushes, armature condition, filters
- battery system terminals, electrolyte, status indicator, and the actual battery
- electrical contactors, connections, lugs
- lubrication of chains, rollers, motor, fork carriage, pivot points, wheel spindle bearings
- electrical-system wiring, connectors, lights, annunciators, warning devices.
What’s missing from the forked AGV maintenance list that’s included on one for a traditional forklift? Not much: the operator’s seat, seat belt, steering wheel, protective cage/roll bars, brakes, and gear shifter. In the end, the reliability of the forked AGV depends on the reliability of the base systems and components, the automation system(s), and the interface between those two complex systems and components.
The teachable moment
Higher levels of automation complexity will introduce countless more opportunities for failure. The requirements for inherent (built-in) reliability, reliable work processes, and human talent will also grow exponentially.
The investment in human capital will become increasingly more important than the investment in capital assets in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Without investments in skills and knowledge to operate and maintain high-tech systems, the money spent on new automation will fail to achieve the desired businesses goals.
The “Professional Equipment Technician” of the very near future will be required to master equipment/system maintenance fundamentals, interpret on-board diagnostics, and make necessary repairs to electro-mechanical systems. The good news is that all of this is achievable without a four-year college degree.
Businesses must accelerate their internal and external talent-management systems. Community colleges and technical schools must begin tooling up for transforming occupations. Beyond STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) skills, our elementary, middle, and high schools must begin introducing careers for modern industrial/manufacturing and facilities maintenance that will continue to command high wages for high skills. MT
Bob Williamson, CMRP, CPMM and member of the Institute of Asset Management, is in his fourth decade of focusing on the “people side” of world-class maintenance and reliability in plants and facilities across North America. Contact him at RobertMW2@cs.com.