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What is … Mixed Skill Factory

Humans will also continue to work in factories. In so-called mixed skill factories, using machines should help make the working environment more humane.

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The term mixed skill factory leads into the world of factories and the future. Here, man and machine work together flexibly. “When we speak of the factory of the future, many people only think of machines and robotics, but humans will also be an essential part,” says Roman Weitschat from the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at DLR (German Aerospace Centre).

In a bidt-funded project, Roman Weitschat and partners at the Institute fortiss and ISF Munich are researching how technology and digitalisation must be designed so that people are more actively involved in factory work, and work is made more conducive and effortless.

When we speak of the factory of the future, many people only think of machines and robotics, but humans will also be an essential part.

Dr. Roman Weitschat

Currently, people in the factory – especially in assembly – take on a large share of the workload because robots can only take simple, repetitive tasks off their hands.

In addition, robots fail when something has to be done “quickly”, i.e. unplannability prevails, and high flexibility is necessary—for example, picking something up because it has accidentally fallen. Only a human can do that; a machine must first learn how to do it.

But while automated processes are often separated from the tasks of the employees in industrial production today, the idea of the mixed skill factory brings the two together. The starting point is required skills. The idea: if the skills that people and robots need for their tasks in a factory are comprehensively documented, they can be combined better and more flexibly. Through this approach, tasks can be aligned more effectively with the capabilities of both humans and technology. This allows for greater accuracy in task execution and facilitates the design of work that encourages employee growth and development.

On the other hand, criteria of humane work and technology design can be taken into account in the distribution of tasks. The scientists speak of the empowerment of the employees.

The research project is correspondingly complex. All factory-related activities must be formally described in individual skill units, if possible. This starts with simple tasks, such as “turning a screw three millimetres deep, ” leading to higher-level skills that combine several essential skills. In order for these definitions to effectively enhance working conditions for workers, they must be assessed based on certain criteria. These criteria include whether humans or machines are faster, whether the skill application supports growth, how the activity impacts ergonomics, and how to increase flexibility in individual working time arrangements for employees.

In the future, people will have more frequent interactions with machines.

Dr. Roman Weitschat

“Our project aims to contribute to the humanisation of work in factories. People should not only have to do monotonous tasks but should be able to organise their work more freely,” says Weitschat. In a mixed skill factory, employees have more options for deciding how to organise their work.

To ensure this runs smoothly, interfaces and criteria for collaboration are identified, and a user interface and algorithms are developed to dynamically control a switch between humans and machines.

Such an intelligently orchestrated factory would also have the advantage of reacting more flexibly to changes in production planning, for example, in demand.

bidt glossary: Mixed Skill Factory

In a mixed skill factory, humans and machines work together flexibly. By using machines in a customised way, the work should be easier for the employees and more interesting. To achieve this, the skills that humans and machines need for their tasks are recorded so that they can then be flexibly combined with each other as needed. In such an intelligently orchestrated factory, the entire production planning can then be adapted more flexibly to changes, for example in demand.

Research project at bidt

The project team explores ways of designing cooperation between humans and machines to provide factory employees with more flexibility. The project combines perspectives from the technical sciences and the sociology of work. DLR, fortiss and ISF Munich are involved.