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Why AI Isn’t the Answer to All That Ails Manufacturing

A look at how eye tracking can harness valuable insights on human intelligence which can be used to enhance man-machine interaction, training, and safety.

The manufacturing sector is facing a complex set of problems. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is opening new and unique opportunities for increased productivity, ingenuity, and invention, but at the same time, the industry is shackled by a lack of adequately skilled workers and the mass exodus of baby boomers. 

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is fundamentally transforming the landscape of the manufacturing sector, making processes more efficient, safer and more consistent. These technologies are also enabling factories to operate around the clock without the human propensity for tiredness or need for breaks. In fact, smart factories are becoming so prolific, that by 2025, it’s predicted the market size for artificial intelligence in manufacturing will soar from around $500 million to more than $15 billion. Impressive figures - but the math still doesn’t add up for manufacturers.

While we are seeing a surge in AI being implemented across the industry, there is still a need for human oversight and activity, so it’s critical that we can work with machines for seamless operations. Countries across the globe have created a range of collaborative bodies to usher the sector into this new era and help mitigate some of the challenges it presents, but at a grassroots level, there are things that individual businesses can do to create real improvements within their own workplaces.

Eye tracking is a sophisticated, yet simple technology that allows you to record a person’s gaze with incredible accuracy. It can be applied during training and testing in VR when using a simulator and of course when working or training in the real world. When used within manufacturing it delivers great potential to tackle two major roadblocks – the skills gap and fragmented relationship between artificial and human intelligence. 

How eye tracking connects man and machine

Eye tracking taps into visual attention which is a major window into our cognitive processes, subconscious thoughts, instinctive behaviors, and cognitive load. Ask your employees to wear a pair of eye-tracking glasses while working and you will get unparalleled insight into their tacit knowledge on the task being examined and how they interact with their environment. Eye-tracking data reveals answers to why some defects are detected and others not, why some workers complete tasks with varying efficiency or accuracy and why some tasks generate more accidents than others. For example, are the instructions clear enough, is something blocking an employee’s line of sight, is the method too complicated, does a machine draw too much attention away from the task at hand? Few methods can solicit this information with such accuracy.

An eye-tracking recording with the gaze of an expert can easily be incorporated into training material to enhance employee learning. In a similar way, it can also be used to assess and measure the competence and progression of new workers and identify where more attention needs to be placed within existing training. Unlike written, drawn, or verbalized instructions eye-tracking data reveals details on intuitive behavior that are difficult or impossible to explain.

Already this technology is being used by businesses worldwide. Japanese car parts giant Denso managed to cut training time in half for a department of quality assurance inspectors by studying the gaze of top-performing employees and teaching this method to others. A pharmaceutical conglomerate implemented new checking processes on a packaging line after running an eye-tracking study to reduce ‘mix-up’ errors, and a metal foundry in the U.S. believes it will save hundreds of hours annually in onboarding time thanks to an eye-tracking study which revealed methods of best practice for pouring liquid aluminum. 

If you consider the manufacturing workforce today, a significant proportion will have entered the sector well before most advanced manufacturing technology was invented, making it hard to find staff with the right competencies to either tackle or even teach the type of work needed today, but with the right training, workers can learn and adapt to this new environment. Eye-tracking also aids this transition by helping to assess how new technology and humans work alongside each other, for example, does a machine interface contain the right amount of information and is it displayed in an optimal way to be properly processed by the person operating it? 

On the other side of the equation, this same data could be used to train AI. For artificial intelligence to get smarter it needs input. The eye-tracking data in the scenarios above could also be used to inform AI and build its knowledge of certain processes or more efficiently deliver this information to humans; perhaps there’s a visual attention pattern that precedes a lapse in concentration or a subtle indicator of a defect that humans know to look for. Overall, AI is making factory work less arduous for humans and combining the power of both presents enormous possibilities.

Seeing safety from a new perspective

In the same way that eye tracking reveals tacit knowledge, it also provides deep insight into situational awareness.  Because you can see where a worker’s attention is focused, you can also see where it’s not focused – perhaps the forklift driver can’t see if a roller door has fully opened because of the cabin canopy, perhaps there’s machinery blocking a worker’s line of sight to a warning light, perhaps the placement of a button or checklist draws their attention from the task which causes a mistake – all these things could be detected by utilizing eye tracking. In a factory world where man and machine work side-by-side, it’s an ideal tool to assess and measure how the two function within the one environment and complement each other. According to research from Harvard Business Review companies, “achieve the most significant performance improvements when humans and machines work together.Eye-tracking data is the missing link between the two, a communication point for data and human insight.

The path forward for humans and tech

Technology is constantly evolving and redefining the playing field for almost every industry so adapting or not means the difference between prosperity and stagnation. Fortunately, there are ways to help bridge this gap between what a workforce knows and what it needs to know. Eye tracking is just one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an incredibly valuable one that shouldn’t be overlooked, as no other method delves into human behavior as it can.

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