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Author: Behrokh Khoshnevis
Telefacturing is based on telecontrol and
telerobotics, and effectively utilizes most
components of Industry 4.0.
The US manufacturing sector, which employs about 13 million workers (Weston 2019), has been hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic in part because most jobs entail physical activities (e.g., fabrication, assembly, testing, packaging, material handling) that cannot be done remotely. Worker proximity in closed spaces greatly facilitates contagion.
The extensive disruptions call for fundamental changes to ensure post-pandemic survival and promote growth in many human endeavors, including manufacturing. This article introduces a new manufacturing paradigm that is in perfect conformance with the principles of the emerging 4th Industrial Revolution, to offer the manufacturing sector effective approaches for dealing with pandemic conditions as well as many other challenges.
According to a survey conducted in March 2020 by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM 2020) about 80 percent of US manufacturing companies expected that the pandemic would have a considerable financial impact on their business, and 53 percent expected that their operations would also be impacted by the pandemic. Unfortunately, these bleak expectations became a certainty. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 the manufacturing sector lost 1.3 million jobs by the month of May (BLS 2020). Some major manufacturing companies temporarily closed their facilities and laid off a portion of their employees, and the prospect of bankruptcy for others is quite real.
The history of human social and technological evolution has repeatedly shown that, much as in evolutionary biology, major disruptions in human societies lead to the emergence of new social structures and norms as well as new sociotechnical paradigms. Given the severity of the disruptions caused by the covid-19 pandemic in almost all aspects of life around the world, the emergence of new social norms and new sociotechnical systems should be expected in the coming years.
Lessons from the Medieval Plague
In 1347 the bubonic plague reached Europe and in just 4 years claimed the lives of about 40 percent of the population (Lienhard 2003). Outbreaks continued for decades and by the time it receded nearly a century later Europe had lost three-quarters of its populace to the so-called Black Death—the greatest calamity that humanity has faced in known history.
Major disruptions can
lead to the emergence
of new social structures and norms as
well as new sociotechnical paradigms.
What ensued in the wake of this deadly pandemic was not all doom and gloom, however. The plague spared many wealthy survivors, but left far too few workers for their ventures, so labor became much more valuable. Demand for higher wages soared, and even minutes spent on work were counted. Accurate time keeping became important, and innovations in clockwork rose, as did the use of timepieces.
Because 14th century medicine had failed to save victims of the plague, medical practice took a radically different direction, away from often superstitious treatments toward objective experimentation and the creation of practical, and more effective, medical knowledge. Attention to general knowledge also grew, books were written, and the invention of the printing press in 1440 enabled the rapid distribution and growth of the emerging knowledge and information.
Because of the reduced workforce, efficiency had to increase through innovative methods and technologies, which led to the emergence, primarily in cities, of lucrative businesses based on craftsmanship, signaling the dawn of the industrial age. Peasants, seeking alternatives to serfdom, were attracted to these prosperous industrial activities and sites.
In these and other ways the plague rocked the foundation of the medieval world and marked the beginning of the end of feudalism. Europe was reborn and became a center of culture, science, and technology for the next few centuries.
Although no pandemic is expected to be as devastating as the plague in medieval Europe, the history is still relevant, as demonstrated by the significant impacts of covid-19 on the world’s complex sociotechnical and economical ecosystems in just a few months.
Lessons from Modern History
Disruptive technological evolutions since the mid-1800s have had major impacts on how goods were produced and services rendered, and how the related work was done. They are referred to as industrial revolutions because their impacts were not incremental but monumental.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing together manufacturing and supply chain operations with recent advances in digital technologies, including cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), big data analytics,, machine learning, augmented reality, the internet of things (IoT), simulation/digital twin, and additive manufacturing (AM)/3D printing. Together these can provide a holistic and interconnected environment for manufacturing operations as well as functions related to supply chains and customers.
A New Manufacturing Paradigm: Telefacturing
Simple tasks have already been automated in most American manufacturing plants, and further automation is recommended (e.g., Okorie et al. 2020; PWC 2020) to reduce the spread of covid-19 by decreasing worker density. But additional automation will mean further layoffs.
Furthermore, more complex manufacturing tasks still rely on human intelligence and dexterity. Automation of such operations is an expensive proposition that requires major investment in hardware and more skilled (i.e., higher-paid) workers to maintain them.
Recent developments, collectively known as Industry 4.0, can be used to create other modes of automation that allow manufacturing workers to safely perform their tasks from a remote location such as their home office or a dedicated neighborhood hub. The latter would be outfitted with the necessary equipment and software and connected to the manufacturing facility through a high-speed broadband network. The hub can also serve as a place for some social contact for those who do not like the isolation of working at home.
Telefacturing is based on telecontrol and telerobotics, and effectively utilizes most components of Industry 4.0 (Siebel 2019). It benefits from the current state of the art in virtual and augmented reality, remote sensing (using 2D and 3D vision systems, and various non-contact and tactile sensing technologies), haptics systems, remote actuation mechanisms, and enabling algorithmic, computing, and telecommunication networks based on 5G technology. Following are examples of the use of Industry 4.0 components in telefacturing:
Advantages of Telefacturing
Telefacturing will bring human intelligence and dexterous mechanical manipulation abilities to factories to operate machines and to assist robots, all without requiring the presence of humans. There are numerous advantages to this proposed approach, including assurance of human safety, reduced asset damage, lower real estate and other costs, enhanced sustainability, elimination of worker transportation, flexible work hours, the possibility for workers to work concurrently at multiple factories, and job opportunities for the disabled, the elderly, and others (Khoshnevis 2015.
Remote workers would be
relieved from managing
operational details and
simply send communications
(e.g., in natural language)
to the machine.
Aside from workers who contract an illness in congested manufacturing workspaces, over half a million occupational injuries occur annually in the US manufacturing sector, with annual costs of about $20 billion (NSC 2019). Telefacturing can nearly eliminate on-the-job disease contraction and occupational injuries by eliminating worker exposure to these risks.
Asset Damage Prevention
When humans work directly with machines, accidents resulting from their errors can cause not only injuries but also significant economic loss due to damaged machinery, tools, work pieces, and products. With teleoperation workers do not interact directly with the machinery. In addition, intelligent fail-safe systems for collision avoidance and other impact reduction measures can be effected through software to prevent machines from following accidental operator gestures and orders that violate allowable machine motions and actions.
Reduced Costs for Factory Real Estate, Energy, and Operation
Telefacturing facilities need not be located in or near cities. They can be located on inexpensive land in remote areas, preferably near an electric grid and with easy highway and/or railroad access.
Telefacturing can dramatically improve
the environment by substantially reducing the number of cars on the road during rush hour.
Telefacturing can dramatically improve
the environment by substantially reducing the number of cars on the road during rush hour.
Furthermore, a teleoperated factory does not require accommodation of basic human needs such as lighting, air conditioning, food services (which are subject to regulatory control and require their own staffing), and restroom facilities. Collectively, these can amount to sizable savings in operating and overhead costs.
Telefacturing sites would still need to accommodate engineers and technicians to service and repair machinery, but those employees would be far fewer than operational workers.
Sustainability and Reduced Environmental Impacts
Less consumption of energy and resources will reduce environmental impacts. Telefacturing is also a more sustainable approach primarily because of its conservation of the energy that would otherwise be consumed in transportation of numerous people on a daily basis (as discussed below). Transportation, at least currently, primarily uses fossil fuel and as such creates significant amounts of harmful emissions that are threatening the planet. Telefacturing can dramatically improve the environment by substantially reducing the number of cars on the road.
Elimination of Worker Commutes
Worker transportation between home and factory, often during rush hour, is costly, takes a toll on workers’ time, energy, and productivity, and presents accident risks. Carpooling, public transit, and use of a company shuttle service expose workers to a higher risk of contracting contagious diseases.
Commuting can also indirectly have an important real cost for companies, which may be compelled to hire local workers although nonlocal candidates may be more suitable. Transportation costs deter some potential employees from taking jobs that would require them to spend a significant portion of their income and time on their commute.
Flexible Work Hours and Location
Workers who do not have to be on site at certain times could choose their own work hours as allowed and specified by a computerized schedule posted on a secure internet site. In addition, the convenience of working from home or at a nearby teleoperation hub, which could be situated in an office building with a more comfortable and less imposing environment than that of a typical factory, should give workers a liberating feeling and job satisfaction that enhance their physical and psychological health, and hence their efficiency and productivity.
Possibility of Working for Multiple Factories
Telefacturing workers could operate in freelance mode and for multiple factories. Once they complete their assigned job at one factory, they could do an internet search on dedicated sites about available jobs requiring their specific expertise at factories elsewhere, even around the world. This would be advantageous as well for manufacturers operating in sites with limited local availability of needed skills. Certification and authentication would assure factory management about the quality and reliability of remote workers. A web-based system would keep track of comments and ratings for each worker per job performed; similarly, workers could rate employers.
The web-based systems to support this option could become a telefacturing internet business (TIB) with great potential for success.
New Job Opportunities for Disadvantaged Workers
By eliminating long commutes and by providing force amplification through remote control devices, telefacturing is ideal for those who have difficulty moving around or performing heavy tasks that require strong muscle power. It would provide employment opportunities for people who may otherwise be unemployed and at risk of poverty, including the disabled and the elderly (the latter population is growing rapidly as life expectancy steadily increases).
Telefacturing can also provide employment opportunities for others, such as those who do not have a car or access to transit to get to a workplace, or women who have been categorically denied the kind of work that requires “muscle power.”
The extension of telefacturing technologies to laboratory-based education would both facilitate offsite learning and enhance safety. During the pandemic most schools and universities resorted to online teaching, which in many respects has been very effective and of course safe. However, courses that depend on laboratory experiments suffered because of the indirect execution of experiments by lab technicians or teaching assistants instead of the students themselves, or in many cases the complete elimination of the lab component.
With telefacturing technologies it will be possible for students to perform their own lab experiments and observe the results from a remote location without the pandemic-associated risks of close proximity with others. Furthermore, as I have known over the years of cases of exposure to harmful chemicals, explosions, and other mishaps, the remote approach will eliminate the hazards of certain lab experiments that may be unsafe (occasionally even fatal).
Essential Related R&D Activities
Research and development are needed to advance several fields and set the stage for successful implementation of telefacturing.
Characterization and Classification of Manufacturing Activities
For selected manufacturing domains (e.g., machining of mechanical parts, casting and foundry, electronics), activities such as fabrication, assembly, testing and quality control, material handling and storage, and packaging should be characterized with respect to the metrics that are important in human-machine interactions. These could include scale, weight, required accuracy, required execution speed, limit on operator response time, limit on system latency, workcell visibility and audibility, and workcell design and robot work envelope relationship.
Hierarchy of Implementation
Related practices in remotely controlled activities and missions such as space travel and exploration, telesurgery, and drone control should be studied to identify applicable approaches for at least some candidate tasks in manufacturing.
Obviously, operator tasks that involve turning machines on or off, setting control knobs and valves, watching for critical conditions to take such actions, and the like are the simplest and least expensive tasks to be done through telefacturing, because they generally can be done by mere electronic or electromechanical modules (e.g., relays, sensors) and do not require the addition of expensive hardware such as robots. Operations such as measurement, quality control, and packaging could also easily be done through telefacturing.
Next are tasks that can be performed with relatively inexpensive robots; such tasks include picking randomly arriving objects from a conveyor and placing them in selected bins or packages, for example. Separation of recyclable objects from trash passing on con-veyor belt, which is usually performed by human operators and is often not hygienic, may be done by operators at home who simply click on the recyclable object that they see on their monitor. Control of material handling and -storage/retrieval operations may be done through remotely driven forklifts and other equipment.
The next and more challenging class of tasks would require more accuracy, analogous to telesurgery. These include small mechanical assembly such as that involved in electronics components on custom-designed, low-batch-size circuit boards. Mechanical component machining and larger-scale module assembly may be more challenging tasks but certainly feasible.
Human operators are good at first-degree prediction, but their ability to control in a timely manner diminishes rapidly with higher-order prediction. Realistic simulation tools should be developed for machine operator training, much as flight simulators are used to train pilots without risking the pilot or the plane. Sites offering simulated training are another new business opportunity. Special training sites, preferably at telefacturing hubs, may be equipped with remote control, haptic feedback devices, and advanced graphics (e.g., using virtual reality) to train the workforce for new jobs.
Management System Design
Many aspects of management—including training, supervision, reward system, enterprise resource planning, operations planning, scheduling, and control—could be streamlined and made more adaptive and effective with telefacturing. Each of these management functions should be analyzed and new management systems developed for implementation of the telefacturing paradigm.
In areas other than manufacturing, telerobotics with real-time sensory feedback are currently in use. These include drones in various applications such as emergency medical services, land and building surveys, agriculture, and search and rescue. Another application that has shown impressive progress is telesurgery, which can make a physician’s service available in remote locations. Finally, advanced applications of telerobotics are in space projects such as on-orbit satellite servicing or rover mission control on the moon and Mars.
For manufacturing, telefacturing offers an opportunity for both established robotics companies and future startups to embark on the creation of specialized telerobotics systems. A possible starting point is the development of less expensive systems for handling simple manufacturing jobs such as remotely controllable pick-and-place and inspection robots, material handling robots, and storage/retrieval machines.
With progress in the areas discussed above, -telefacturing can be the way of the future for manufacturing, offering advantages in worker safety, environmental sustainability, productivity and efficiency, employment opportunities, and cost and time management.
BLS [US Bureau of Labor Statistics]. 2020. Payroll employment down 20.5 million in April 2020. Economics Daily, May 12.
Khoshnevis B. 2015. Telefacturing – A paradigm for the 21st century. Industrial Engineer 47(11).
Lienhard JH. 2003. The Engines of Our Ingenuity: An Engineer Looks at Technology and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press.
NAM [National Association of Manufacturers]. 2020. Corona-virus outbreak special survey, February/March.
NSC [National Safety Council]. 2019. Injury facts: Work overview – Work safety introduction. Online at https://injuryfacts.nsc.org/work/work-overview/work-safety- -introduction.
Okorie O, Subramoniam R, Charnley F, Patsavellas J, -Widdifield D, Salonitis K. 2020. Manufacturing in the time of COVID-19: An assessment of barriers and enablers. IEEE Engineering Management Review 48(3):167–75.
PWC [PricewaterhouseCoopers]. 2020. COVID-19: What it means for industrial manufacturing.
Siebel T. 2019. Digital Transformation. New York: Rosetta Books.
Weston B. 2019. How small manufacturing businesses drive the US economy. SCORE.org, May 19.