Proving the Business Case for the Internet of Things

Human centred smart workplaces increase smart factory productivity

William Payne
April 1, 2015

An EU project, FACTS4WORKERS, is aiming to improve productivity and intelligent decision making within future smart factories by developing improved, connected smart human machine interfaces. The project, funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme, is guided by the principle that smart workplaces are an essential component of the smart factory of the future and will increase workers' productivity and engagement as well as factory agility.

The place of workers in highly connected future smart factories is often seen as a societal challenge, with speculation that smart factories will either sideline or isolate workers, or even replace them altogether.

The FACTS4WORKERS project takes a diametrically opposite view. It believes that workers will be at the heart of the most productive and the most agile smart factories of the future. A highly skilled and motivated workforce on the shop floor of a smart factory can out-perform and out-respond a fully automated factory, the organisers of the project believe.

The project is motivated by a desire to reverse the trend to move production away from Europe to lower cost production or energy regions. The European Commission (EC) believes that the EU's highly skilled and educated workforce is a major asset of the bloc. It has set a goal of growing manufacturing production within the EU from a present 15 percent to 20 percent by 2020. In order to take full advantage within Europe of the trend towards smart factories, smart workplaces must evolve to server "production knowledge workers".

The FACTS4WORKERS project is being led at the VIRTUAL VEHICLE research centre in Graz, Austria. The project is made of a consortium of companies and research institutions including Graz University of Technology, ThyssenKrupp, Johnson Controls, The University of Zurich and Evolaris.

The project is developing connected and integrated systems, data analytics, and human machine interfaces that will allow knowledge workers in a smart workplace to optimise and direct operations to best suit changing demands and conditions. The project believes that such technologies can increase workplace productivity by 10 percent. In addition, they believe that changing manufacturing into a production knowledge discipline will make it more attractive as field of employment.

One focus of the project is how to develop workplace approaches and technologies to allow for highly efficient production of ever smaller batches. The project is developing interface and decision support systems that will allow operators to juggle rapidly changing information from multiple sources, using HMI devices such as data goggles, as well as direct integration of MES and ERP systems, and the elimination of paper within factories. Human centred knowledge management is also being developed, with voice, gesture or touch activation instead of text input, as well context based learning and virtual reality simulation and control environments.