The Observatory's Great Debates: What kind of collaboration will we see between men and machines in the automated factory of the future?

On 17 December 2014 the second round of Fives’ Observatory for the Plants of the Future’s Great Debates was held, at which experts from different backgrounds discussed the question "Man + Robot: a winning team for the factory of the future?".

These Great Debates bring an end to the 2014 Observatory calendar of events questioning tomorrow's industry, questions which have been asked by Fives since 2012 when the Observatory was founded. 

While discussion up until now has given a closer view of what the factory of the future will look like - a smaller, cleaner, more connected factory using new technologies and new materials - the question of man's place is at the core of it all, in particular that of cooperation between operators and robots which are posited as false enemies.

Robotisation is necessary for the sustainability of French industry

Are robots an enemy to employment?

An initial round table debate examined the question of substitution and the potential danger of machine replacing man: are the fears surrounding automation justified?  Are robots an enemy to employment and will operators survive?

Max Blanchet, Senior Partner at Roland Berger, began by highlighting the obsolescence of French production systems (17 to 19 years on average) in comparison to its European neighbours, and the trend of lower investments in the industrial sector, while there is a positive dynamic between the rate of robotisation and employment rates. To the economist Robin Rivaton, robotisation is actually a condition for the sustainability of French industry, while emerging countries are equipping themselves massively (China equips itself with 37,000 industrial robots each year, while the total French number in existence is 34,000); industrial production will therefore be spurred on and optimized by automation, which will enable it to maintain its advantage in key sectors for the French economy. Marcel Grignard, Chairman of think tank Confrontations Europe and former treasurer of the union CFDT, confirmed the fact that companies must be innovative and automate to perform well and keep their jobs. He also emphasized the importance of supporting workers, who must be trained to approach this new man-machine collaboration without fear, as it will relieve them of irksome and dangerous tasks. These ideas are demonstrated by the example of the company Redex, represented by Sylvie Bernard-Grandjean, its CFO and Director of Development: robotisation has enabled this French precision mechanics specialist to remain competitive on the international scene, while gaining precision and placing its workers on less boring and repetitive tasks, with no negative impact on employment.

To draw best advantage from the robotic revolution, production systems must be re-examined

What will be the role of man in the automated factory of the future?

The second round table discussion involved three speakers debating the role of man in tomorrow's automated factory and how this man + robot collaboration could be optimized in the factory of the future.

To Bernard Carera, Managing Director of Stäubli Robotics, this duo sets a series of technical challenges to be faced, before it is possible to propose a secure and functional solution. Robots must, like operators, have the perception to act skilfully and without danger along with the operator; their interface and ergonomics require special attention therefore.  More generally, José-Vincente de Los Mozo, Renault Director of Manufacturing and Logistics, recalled the extent to which programming of the production line should be 'flexible' in order to leave operators their share of creativity and discernment, converting to a production line control and quality assurance role. Armand Hatchuel, Joint Holder of the Innovative Design Theory and Methods Professorship at the Ecole des Mines ParisTech, emphasized how much transformation of design systems was necessary (from as early as the design office), just like our traditional idea of robots which must evolve to make room for the abundance of possibilities offered by a robotic revolution and which is firmly founded in design upstream of the production process.

In the armed forces, digital technology has transformed the role of operators

Viewpoint of General Mercier: Man and machine, a winning team in the Air Force

General Denis Mercier, French Air Force Chief of Staff, gave the example of another field where the issue of man-machine collaboration arises: the Air Force has already completed its own digital revolution which began twenty years ago. The arrival of the state-of-the-art technological systems, drones, profoundly transformed work for operators, who initially feared this change, but who are now removed from physical danger and have changed roles from aircraft pilot to manager of air operations. The question of man's place in these connected and complex ecosystems also arises: within a centralized command centre, information received in real time by sensors are put to human intelligence - they form a set of determining factors which can only be acted upon by human decision.

Man, as the creative factor, benefits from all the power of the machine

Cédric Villani's outlook: an increasingly fecund 'man + robot" relationship

The event was closed by Cédric Villani, mathematician and Director of the Institut Poincaré, who posited this "man + robot" relationship under the Hegelian "master-slave" dialectic. If it were initially a master/slave dialectic - man freely enjoying the work of a computer - this relationship has moved into a much more dynamic and fecund master/pupil dialectic. If the master (man) wishes to keep the pupil's (robot's) respect, it is down to him to programme it intelligently, to keep the creative aspect of the work and take advantage of the machine's superb speed of execution. Thus, in the factory, this useful interaction between the three components of the 'ménage à trois' (the factory, the robot and men) must be regained and orientated towards innovation, taking mutual stimulation from their performances in an intelligent distribution of roles and skills to finally obtain better yield.

Discussion on the factory of the future begun in 2012

As Fives Management Board Chairman Frédéric Sanchez recalled during his speech, the positive discussion on factories of the future launched by Fives in 2012 is founded in two trends: in technical terms, how to make the factory cleaner, more flexible and more efficient, and in social terms, how does one break down the stereotypes of a French population which is more distanced than ever from its industry, by making it more acceptable and attractive.

In 2014, Fives’ Observatory for the Plants of the Future involved experts from Solvay and Michelin who came to speak about original initiatives which will make the factory of the future. The 2nd issue of the Cahier de l'Observatoire, published in May, rounded up on the latest trends and innovations in sustainable industry, while presenting Fives contributions to the discussion initiated by the government through the "Factory of the Future" plan, of which Fives is joint leader, along with Dassault Systems.

See all the news, publications and videos of the Fives Observatory’s for the Plants of the Future on the website