Manufacturing in the cloud: users, consumers and systems

With the advent of cloud computing comes the possibility of developing 'manufacturing as a service.' David Golightly and Sarah Sharples discuss the ergonomics implications of being able to 'pay as you go' for products.

Production and assembly is set to evolve with the emergence of cloud manufacturing. Cloud manufacturing moves beyond simply using cloud computing in the manufacturing context, by applying cloud concepts to enable highly configurable, on-demand ‘manufacturing as a service’. Through the use of automation, rapidly-configurable manufacturing lines and automated supply chain orchestration, a single manufacturing resource can be requested by multiple customers, and reconfigured to meet different consumer needs on a pay-as-you-go basis. This new paradigm aims to provide heightened levels of quality and value for consumers of manufacturing, and allows manufacturing service providers to engage in new, flexible arrangements leading to better use of capabilities.

Changes across the manufacturing supply chain will have implications for customers, managers and front-line operators. While the relevance of factors such as trust and the importance of HCI are highlighted as areas for research within cloud manufacturing they are not, as yet, presented within a coherent agenda for investigation and change. There are also other potential considerations such as new requirements for operator knowledge within rapidly changing assembly lines. These are concerns that ergonomics is centrally placed to address.

Here, we present our early impressions of the relevance of ergonomics to the manufacturing cloud from our involvement in the EPSRC-funded Cloud Manufacturing Project based at the University of Nottingham. Work to date has involved consultation and requirements gathering with consumers of the manufacturing cloud, either as traditional Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) or as smaller, ‘cottage’ users. We have also involved the people who will underpin the manufacturing cloud - IT providers, manufacturing service providers and logistics providers.

Consuming the manufacturing cloud
First, we have consumers of cloud manufacturing services – the people who request manufacturing services and components. The flexibility of cloud manufacturing means that where manufacturing services may previously have been too expensive, they can now be booked on a short-term basis, opening up manufacturing to a whole range of new users, including ‘cottage’ manufacturers and crowd-funding ventures. Already, we have seen a diversity of opinions on how people perceive the use of the cloud, what it means to them, and therefore what knowledge or mental models may need support. For example, while cottage users see potential in the cloud, they have rarely considered the technical and procedural requirements, such as expressing product designs through open standards, that OEMs foresee.

The opportunity to rapidly and cheaply procure early products from the cloud offers the potential for rapid prototyping and experimentation, and this is a potential benefit to user-centred design and evaluation for new products. However, with this new agility of development comes a risk that ergonomics and end-user participation could be missed in the process. Therefore, ergonomists need to find ways of being represented within the cloud manufacturing lifecycle. An area for interest in ergonomics has been the expression and capture of affective requirements to support mass customisation to users’ personal needs. Consumers cite the flexibility of the cloud as an opportunity to customise products to specific requirements. In meeting this need, ergonomics should continue to explore techniques that aim to capture and express affective needs in a formalised manner, such as Kansei engineering.

Servicing the manufacturing cloud
At the other end of the supply chain, we have the manufacturing service providers. Principally, these are the people providing machining, component build, assembly and so on. The vision is these organisations will use a greater degree of automation and robotics than ever before, allowing them to flexibly adapt production to new orders as they come in. The challenge for ergonomics is to understand how to support control of these production environments, particularly where the introduction of technologies such as swarm intelligence for evolvable assembly may be beyond the interpretation of people who are expected to confirm the performance of automation. Similarly, visions of the factory floor discussing wholly automated scheduling, though, in practice, people still play a key role in translating a whole host of local factors into constraints for successful operations.

It is interesting that while many academic conceptions of cloud manufacturing take the view that it is primarily an automated process applied to ‘green field’ sites, our industrial partners are as interested in strategies for human-cyber integration, and emphasise the importance of integration with legacy equipment and processes. These are areas where ergonomics and HCI can play a central role. Also, the variability of products will require broader ranges of skill and flexibility from operators on the shop floor. Ergonomics can help with successful, user-centred deployment of new technology within existing production and with walking the line between variability leading to stimulation and job enrichment, or complexity and overload.

Orchestrating the manufacturing cloud
Matching consumers to services is a technical and an organisation challenge and both challenges have an ergonomics dimension. The technical orchestration of temporary supply chains requires consumers to express their needs in a standardised form, while service providers express capabilities in a formalised manner. While some of this information, such as CAD data, lends itself readily to quantification and codification, building a supply chain is more than just orchestrating product requirements. Partners in a commercial arrangement need to establish trust, including processes for managing communication and risk. The notion of a social network of companies, where people select and configure new supply chains, is dependent on knowing how to capture and express attributes such as skill, reliability and knowledge, as much as technical capability. Effective implementation of decision support for supply chain management will also rely on determining the boundaries of technology, and how human decision-making and contact can be supported, rather than sidelined.

This highlights the most common concern raised in our requirements work so far: security. Not just technical security, but also around issues of intellectual property. Even if technically secure, people have to trust the technology and each other. The role of ergonomics here is two-fold. First, in making sure that processes are clear, relevant and understood by all and second, in ensuring human-machine interfaces clearly communicate the provenance of incoming data, and the destination of outgoing data.

The role for ergonomics
We have highlighted just a few of the issues coming to light as we consider work in this new manufacturing environment. Commentators on cloud manufacturing note that many of the technical ideas are not new. The innovation comes from the integration of developments to make a complex, distributed manufacturing system. Similarly, much of the ergonomics that will apply will not be new, but it will require us to orchestrate different fields, such as affective requirements, models of collaboration, cyber-human interaction and physical ergonomics for assembly in new ways.

This is a complex task, and requires a view of ergonomics on cloud manufacturing that takes a holistic view, either through addressing layers of users across a product lifecycle, as we have done here, or through systems approaches such as cognitive work analysis. Integrating ergonomics in the manufacturing cloud gives us an opportunity to explore the link between micro ergonomics, be that local processes of automation control and scheduling, or understanding transferrable assembly skills and macro ergonomics, in terms of the overall performance of the manufacturing cloud. It will also provide the opportunity to demonstrate the value of ergonomics in the process of building and operating a manufacturing cloud.

The ultimate vision of cloud manufacturing is that any relevant service is decentralised and available through orchestration. This vision applies to ergonomists, too. For us to keep our presence in the manufacturing lifecycle, we will need to adapt, delivering ergonomics as a service through the cloud, so that we can continue to influence the design of products, and of productive manufacturing work.

By David Golightly & Sarah Sharples

David Golightly is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, working on the human factors contribution to the Cloud Manufacturing project. Sarah Sharples is Professor of Human Factors at the University of Nottingham, and Co-Investigator on the Cloud Manufacturing project.

This article first appeared in issue 531 of The Ergonomist, September 2014