HomeAutonomous Vehicles‘Crazy’ factory cyborgs, and how to embrace robots – Sandvik, the smartest little tool-house in Sweden (pt3)

‘Crazy’ factory cyborgs, and how to embrace robots – Sandvik, the smartest little tool-house in Sweden (pt3)

Note, this is the third part in a three-part series about manufacturer Sandvik Cormorant, which has been ranked as the smartest factory in Sweden. Go here to read the previous instalment (‘Smash-proof guitars and ‘insane’ amounts of data). Go here to read the first instalment (‘Greta dislikes you, but we like Greta’).

For Sandvik, talk of machines taking over from humans in the industrial space is guff. The two will work together, ever more closely. Dramatising this future symbiosis, Claes Nord, experience specialist at Sandvik Coromant, the Swedish firm’s industrial tooling division, asks a packed house of industrial operatives to consider his hand. It has a chip inside, he explains. 

There are 5,000 more “crazy people like me” in Sweden, with RFID-enabled microchips embedded under their skin, he says. Four, including Nord, work for Sandvik Cormorant, engaged in human-machine experimentation.

“I have 100 pages of information. I can store anything I want on that chip. Who needs a business card? I have Power BI reports. I can open doors.  I came here by train from Stockholm, and paid with my hand. It’s tied to my bank account. It’s a little scary, huh?”

To recap, Nord is speaking at PI World 2019, in Gothenburg, an event put on by California based OSIsoft, whose PI System serves 65 per cent of Fortune 500 companies. It is a legacy OT data system, but its installed base and its forward progress, as an OT/IT data integration platform, makes it as close to a standard platform for Industry 4.0 as there is.

Sandvik uses the PI System. But Nord’s presentation only skirts around this. He zooms out, to take in the big question of industrial sustainability, in somewhat forced symbiosis with commercial business gains. Greta Thunberg’s grandfather used to work at Sandvik Coromant as a controller; her mother used to sing in the Sandvik Coromant choir, he says. 

But quite apart from being from alumni stock, and a compatriot, Nord says Sandvik likes her for what she stands for – even if the feeling is not reciprocated. “We have to stop destroying the planet. We need to be flexible. We need to be prepared to do things differently. We need to be prepared to work with machines,” says Nord.

He presents himself, with chip literally in-hand, as a living testament to our cyborg future, where humans and machines are so closely entwined the edges blur. “The future is the human embedded computer,” he says. “I mean, imagine if you could download Chinese, speak any language in the world. It’s going to come.”

His point is organisations, whether they are engaged in manufacturing or other activities, should not fear robots; they must not go blindly into digital revolution, but be active participants in it. Humans will write the future, not robots, or self-automating analytics. Robots will do as they are told, in the end, and help to drive business and sustainability. 

It has always been this way, he tells the Gothenburg automators, at once tasked with harnessing digital change, and unsure of quite what they will unleash. “The computer didn’t invent itself,” he says, looking backwards at the last industrial revolution.

“There weren’t suddenly two holes in the wall, out of which electricity came. These [revolutions] are invented by people. It’s the same with Industry 4.0. If you could buy it, we would have done so already. We are inventing it.”

But it’s a wild ride, he warns at the same time, and the job of industrialists to keep control is unclear; the only way is to be open to data and data-tools at every turn. “The scary part is the world is changing so fast… You really need to suck everything you can when it comes to data because we have to be ready to change.” 

Sandvik Cormorant, headquartered in the village of Gimo, north of Stockholm, was rated as a ‘lighthouse’ smart factory by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on four counts: its utilisation of parametric design, digital thread, business intelligence (BI) and analytics, and real-time process control. It is the only Swedish factory to have achieved the recognition. 

The key has been its ability to make change, even as the old world has unravelled. When the financial crisis hit in 2008, Sandvik Cormorant lost 60 per cent of its business overnight, says Nord. “We didn’t want to send people home, so we trained them.” It visited Swedish truck manufacturer Scania, he says. (He doesn’t say why, but the implication is Scania’s production system was somehow dynamic and robust.) 

The company subsequently ran ‘blue-collar’ staff through 2,500 hours of training, and set out a change programme that has seen it deliver on the four WEF measures, and also put focus on staff safety (“our top priority”) and health (the company offers a number of extracurricular sport activities; “we want staff to go home in better shape than they came”.)

The culture has changed. Two years ago, Sandvik Cormorant promoted Nadine Crauwels as president. Crauwels has been with the company for two decades; she previously held roles as manager for the Swiss business, and head of customised solutions. Crauwels has introduced agile working methodologies, which have legitimised experimentation and (controlled) failure as a way to innovation. 

“If we don’t make mistakes, we don’t challenge ourselves. We need to be on the edge all the time. But make your mistakes cheap, fixable and don’t repeat them,” says Nord, explaining her ethos. 

New projects and practices are being driven ‘bottom-up’, he says. “It’s a much stronger buy-in. Don’t underestimate the power of your people. Your people are your most important asset – along with your data.” A from-me-to-you concept for quality control has emerged, he says. “Everyone is responsible for checking quality before delivering to the next department.”

A high school has been established, offering a specialised three-year engineering qualification. “You start when you’re 16, graduate when you’re 19. The goal 50 per cent come and work with us immediately, and the other 50 per cent goes to the university, and then comes back to use after five years. And it’s actually working.”

But the big takeaway from Gimo, in the context of the working relationship between humans and machines, is how it has changed its shift structure to accommodate increased automation, whilst also retaining human domain expertise at the heart of the operations. 

Its plants have always run two shifts, explains Nord: from 5:30am to 2pm and from 2pm to 10:30pm. Its analytics has become sophisticated enough for robots to take over at night, independently, for eight hours. “Thanks to the data, that process is now stable,” says Nord.

But it begs the question: if the factory can run for eight hours without human intervention, why can’t it run for 16 hours, or even 24? Quite so, says Nord. Humans are required to keep charge, and manage certain inputs and processes, but a 16-hour run is feasible – on the grounds the automation/collaboration routine runs on an 4/8 hourly cycle, twice daily (“four hours, man and machine; eight hours, just the machines”, and repeat).

The machines were fine with the proposal, but the staff were not, says Nord: no one wanted to work a split shift, four hours in the early morning and four hours in the late afternoon. “The trick is flexibility,” he says. The company has trained its staff across production-line functions, and shifted them between in four-hour stints.

“Staff need to be able to do everything – to make drills for four hours, and then milling counters for four hours; to make turning tools for four hours and then holding tools for four hours.”

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