Smart factories 'must help workers, not just monitor them or increase efficiency'

Joseph Flaig

Bosch uses co-bots in its factories (Credit: Bosch)
Bosch uses co-bots in its factories (Credit: Bosch)

‘Smart’ factories must provide tangible benefits to workers and not just be used for workplace surveillance or efficiency savings, according to a panel of experts at April’s IoT Tech Expo.

More businesses than ever are installing complex networks of sensors to automatically monitor and react to everything from wear on parts to toilet usage, offering potentially huge efficiency improvements. But for smart buildings to fully succeed they must truly help engineers and other workers, said Mahesh Chikodi, a manager at Bosch. That is particularly true in the climate of suspicion around personal data, in the wake of recent revelations about Facebook.

“The use cases can be enormous,” said Chikodi during the discussion at London’s Olympia exhibition centre. “But what building owners need to do is take the approach of employees in a building. What do they want to experience? Do they want somebody to be monitoring them constantly? I don’t think employees want that. So it’s a balance we need to maintain.”

Other speakers on the panel agreed, saying companies must take an intelligent and worker-conscious approach. “If we are talking about tangible benefits today, it is almost exclusively focused on efficiency savings,” said David Mudd, business development director at the British Standards Institution. “To get real benefits from smart buildings, it has to move on from that.”

He added: “We tend to get obsessed with technology for technology’s sake, rather than engaging with all the people who are going to be affected by it, making sure they have bought into it and are going to benefit from it. That could be for an individual employee, but also how that building fits into the wider community, how it fits into a smart community.”

Smart building technologies can provide significant help in the training and development of workers, Mudd told PE, helping employees to progress within job roles. 

Sensor networks and computing can improve factory health and safety, said Chikodi. Alejandro Navarro from facilities management company Mitie highlighted simpler aspects – canteen management, for example.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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