Why we need to build more human experience into better automation interfaces – fast


An entire generation of skilled workers who work in production and routinely handle automation equipment is ready to retire. Alarmingly few Millennials are waiting to replace them.

This adds up to a unique challenge for automation engineers. How can they capture and translate years of man-machine experience and design this tacit knowledge into better user interfaces? And how can they get this done before all the baby boomers retire?

The demographic clock is ticking. Baby boomers everywhere are calculating their pensions. And if they haven’t retired already, they’re counting the days until it’s their turn. 

Born between 1946 and 1964, the oldest boomers started collecting their pensions at the age of 65 back in 2011. The youngest will be dropping out of the work force in 2029. The post-war generation saw massive changes in how we work, and witnessed the introduction and integration of automation in many industries. They comprise many of the workers who transitioned from “unskilled” to “skilled” as they learned to work with PLCs, robots and the internet throughout Industry 3.0. They also appear to be the last generation that sees a future in routine, unskilled factory jobs.

As we can see from the chart above by job portal Indeed, there are significant differences between baby boomers (ages 53-71 in 2017), Gen Xers (ages 37-52 in 2017) and Millennials (ages 20-36 in 2017) regarding what kind of work they’re looking for.

In the sample above, based on six months of job seeker activity in the U.S., a majority of boomers looking for work clicked on links for routine manual work – far more than Gen Xers and Millennials, who demonstrate an increasing lack of interest in such jobs.

Sorry production facilities of the future, looking for unskilled labor. Millennials just aren’t that into you. 

Demographics drive disruption…

The example above is significant to the automation industry in several ways.

For one thing, it demonstrates a clear generational shift away from the routine manual jobs that dominated production industries until just a few years ago. Young people are increasingly uninterested in the kinds of low-skilled jobs that many of their baby boomer parents performed throughout their careers. Fewer and fewer parents aspire to low-skilled jobs for their children. Instead, parents encourage their offspring to seek educational paths that will enable them to pursue careers in higher-skilled areas.

Some might describe the situation as a positive feedback loop. The more automation takes over unskilled work, the fewer people aspire to unskilled work, which in turn means automation has to take over more unskilled work, accelerating the pace of change. The automation industry will be even busier in the future, not less so, as decision makers increasingly turn to technology instead of people, not only because the technology is more efficient, it’s also easier to find.

Others might see this as a chicken and egg scenario. Automation is taking more and more unskilled jobs, so fewer young people aspire to such work. Fewer and fewer young people seek unskilled jobs, so manufacturers look to automation to replace them. They’re both causes, both effects. In my opinion, what came first is not the interesting part of the story. The interesting part is what we’re going to do about it.

…and disruption drives innovation

The reason this demographic shift is interesting to automation engineers has to do with its consequences for “automation users” – the people who work alongside automation technology and interact with equipment interfaces. For even though the number of people in certain production industries might be nominally shrinking, there are still plenty of people in these industries. The roles of these automation users are changing, however, as is the character of the users themselves. Automation technology has to innovate to keep up with these changes.  

Right now, there is a huge number of baby boomer automation users who have learned to use automation technology primarily in informal ways. These users have worked with increasingly advanced iterations of automation technology, some of which have had great user interfaces, some of which, to be honest, have not.

These workers compensate for poorly designed interfaces and little formal training with what’s known as “tacit knowledge”. The huge amounts of stuff we know, but don’t necessarily know we know.

Tacit automation knowledge is disappearing. What comes next?

Unlike explicit knowledge, tacit knowledge comprises things we “learn by doing” rather than things we learn formally.

We can’t easily write tacit knowledge down, or simply to pass it along to others. Tacit knowledge is always contextual: we pick it up in different ways and places, over time, rather than just go to one place and download it all at once.

Many of the ways automation users interact with automation technology currently depends on the tacit knowledge of the users. They know how to keep things running, but couldn’t write it all down for the new guy. They know that old machine number 99 needs to run a little faster than the manual says, because things just generally work better that way. When things go wrong, they know how to fix them without asking a user’s manual or anyone else for help.

Tacit knowledge acquisition is another thing that makes Millennials different from boomers and even Gen Xers: Unlike their grandparents, they don’t get out of school and jump into a job they’ll have for the rest of their lives. They are notorious job-hoppers, working at a job for a (short) while, then moving on as soon as a better opportunity presents itself. Turnover is high. Compared to boomers and even Gen Xers, Millennials’ interest in ability to build up tacit knowledge concerning automation is sharply limited.

Bottom line: Unless we can somehow change these huge demographic shifts (which is way beyond the skillsets and job description of anyone I know), better automation interfaces will have to incorporate, and eventually replace, tacit knowledge. Let’s examine how.

Why we need to build tacit knowledge into better interfaces

There are four critical takeaways here.

1.      First, many automation users currently know how to operate automation equipment despite user interfaces, not because of them. Over time, they have acquired vital tacit knowledge that keeps production running in all kinds of ways, few of which have anything to do with on-screen instructions.

2.      Second, we can’t expect these users to be around when we need them in the future. Many are baby boomers who are going to retire soon. Some are Gen Xers who, given the dwindling attractiveness of many manufacturing jobs, will be harder to recruit. Still others are Millennials, for whom routine production jobs are a last resort, and not a career that they will stick at for a long time if there are alternatives. We have to get moving.

3.      Third, until artificial intelligence gets so smart that it can completely replace every human mind on the shop floor (and that is a very, very long way away), automation engineers must find the next-smartest solution. This entails somehow capturing the experience and tacit knowledge of the people who keep things running; making implicit knowledge explicit; and embedding this knowledge into smarter software and more intuitive interfaces. This will involve close observation of how people actually interact with automation equipment – what they know and don’t know, and how they figure things out.

4.      Finally, we need to face the fact that creating better interfaces will not be simple. It will mean we have to get even better at understanding user needs and interface design. If current interfaces are like PCs, future interfaces will have to be more like iPads. They will have to be built around simple, clear visual cues, not complicated texts. Tutorials will have to be built in and present themselves to users when and how they are needed. Interfaces will have to mimic the way we think, not make us think. If interfaces aren’t intuitive, they won’t work. If the underlying software isn’t very clever, interfaces won’t be intuitive.

It won’t be simple, but we don’t really have any alternative. This baby boomer is already working with people of all ages to make it happen!


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