Industrial Automation Isn’t a New Concept, But Engineers Are Now Designing Systems with a New Generation of Users – and Business Challenges – in Mind

Machine vision and fixed industrial scanning systems must be so simple to use that every worker can operate them, regardless of tech savviness. They must also make it easier for people to make the right decisions.

A forklift is equipped with fixed industrial scanners
by Jim Witherspoon
September 14, 2021

Some say Digital Natives are an “impatient generation,” but I think we’ve all become intolerant of things that slow us down or delay us from getting what we want on our timeline. That’s why supply chain leaders are starting to really appreciate what industrial automation now offers. There is no time to waste when customer demand is high and two-day delivery is the standard.

Thanks to recent changes in design and functionality, machine vision and fixed industrial scanning systems are making it easy for factory and warehouse workers to move faster through tasks ─ especially in quality control workflows. They are also shaving a lot of time off new hire onboarding, systems training, production, fulfillment and shipping processes.

But we didn’t get here overnight.

For decades, legacy machine vision systems have been regarded as complicated, confusing and dependent on people with a technical background to make them work. Some were even discarded as workers refused to use them due to their complexity.    

Instead of requiring a doctorate degree to use the technology tools found in today’s manufacturing and warehousing environments (particularly given high employee turnover rates), we can address the design and functionality of automation systems to make them more intuitive and easier to use. We can also change the skillsets required to operate, understand, and benefit from machine vision and fixed industrial scanning.   

How New Technology Innovations are Both Changing Our Minds and Making Us More Decisive

The human eye isn’t trained to see details at the same level as vision technologies, and the human brain simply can’t process data at the same rate as machines. (The latest studies show our processing capacity caps out around 60 bits per second.) That doesn’t make workers any less valuable in manufacturing or warehousing settings. Rather, it demonstrates the value technology can bring to making better decisions in the moment.

In fact, recognizing our limitations is the best way to expand our capabilities as humans. It makes it easier for technology designers and solution engineers quickly to solve for X:

Challenge #1: Raw materials, finished goods and packaged orders are moving quickly from one point to the next, forcing us to process information even faster. We are also being asked to make on-the-fly decisions that no one should have to make – at least not on their own. But we can’t slow down the assembly line or warehouse conveyance belt. And we can’t always assign more people to help with quality control inspections.

Solution: We can speed up our image processing capacity, improve our judgement, and maximize our available human capital by automating many of the visual inspection and decision–making processes. This will allow us to re-task and redeploy human assets to other critical business functions so all processes can move smoothly and efficiently in unison. For example, cameras and sensors can check for production and packing compliance against our set design schemas to keep those that pass inspection moving on to packing and shipping teams. And the quality control team can focus exclusively on investigating and resolving the root cause of failed inspections.

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Challenge #2: Workers won’t always have compliance mandates, customer and partner standards, or original design schema memorized (or even within reach) when assembling, inspecting, shipping or reshelving items. Their limited insight into design schematics for parts or finished goods limits their ability to judge quality.

Solution: Enable workers to collaborate better with technology to make more confident pass/fail decisions and take more decisive actions when something is amiss.

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Challenge #3: Our clarity of vision, or lack thereof, might block us from recognizing a poor-quality barcode label, a mis-threaded screw, or an underfilled water bottle. Plus, color confusion is very common, and not something that can be solved by experts. Anyone with a color vision deficiency may think the marking on a pill is blue when in fact it’s purple, and that can have consequences given how tightly regulated pharmaceutical manufacturing has become. (The debate over whether this dress is black and blue or white and gold practically broke the internet a few years back.)

Solution: We can program smart cameras and barcode scanners to see all kinds of things with a certain exactitude, including color, the smallest product defects, and the slightest misplacement of a label.

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Challenge #4: We can only see so much, even when we focus really hard on the task at hand. We can’t keep track of everything happening right in front of us, much less across the supply chain.

Solution: If we want to give everyone in the supply chain a better view of the quality, output and status of each function (customers included), we should take the reporting burden off people. They’re busy, they’ll forget, or maybe make a mistake when inputting data.

In fact, this kind of problem solving is precisely what’s been happening at Zebra for the past several months.

How Engineers Have Reinvented (i.e., Simplified) the Wheel

Whether you’re looking forward to Industry 5.0 or just trying to get orders out the door without issue, workers need to be better equipped to do their jobs, at least from an information standpoint. That’s why industrial automation is worth the investment right now. It will help workers take more decisive action and reduce the number of decisions they must make on their own by:

- automatically confirming if a product or package is good to go,

- keeping track of each item’s whereabouts, and

- telling workers when something specific needs to be done to improve a process or the quality of a product.

But industrial automation only “solves” your problems if the technology is so simple to use that all workers are equally qualified to operate and manage the technology. So, several very smart engineers around the world have been adapting the design and functionality of notoriously complex legacy machine vision and scanning systems to help solve today’s lingering challenges and ensure better support for tomorrow’s workforce.

For example, they’ve applied smart algorithms to automatically analyze the images captured by a camera or scanner, and they’ve trained machine vision/industrial scanning systems to render a pass/fail decision. That way it doesn’t fall onto workers to make the right call. If the system identifies a flaw or discrepancy, it can relay that information to the right person for immediate corrective action. They’ll know if a label needs to be replaced, process adjusted, or investigation started to understand why there’s a repetitive defect in goods coming off the line.

Either way, distractions and biases will no longer cloud workers’ judgement, cause oversights or lead to lengthy debates when people see things differently.

Our engineers have also made it easier to automate the track-and-trace process by simplifying hardware programming for both machine vision and barcode scanning applications. For example, the software now powering smart cameras and scanners can simultaneously confirm a product or package’s location. That, in turn, allows a worker to see that everything looks good from a fulfillment or compliance perspective. This provides peace of mind and increases accountability among stakeholders.

The other benefit of these decision changes?

Moving forward, anyone who wants to take advantage of industrial automation only has to install one set of hardware components and manage one software platform. And workers only have to learn one super-simple system – one time. Even if you add new applications into the mix or decide to repurpose the cameras and scanners elsewhere in your operation, the user interface and buttons are all the same. There’s no learning curve.

This is a huge win for front-line workers, operations supervisors, supply chain partners, IT teams and even consumers who just want to trust that everything is perfect and be able to fix things fast when it’s not.

Commit, Test, Refine, Repeat

Whether you are in manufacturing, warehousing or logistics, you have two options right now:

1. Train workers to be more discerning, organized or aware in their daily tasks, understanding there are functional limits and lifelong training requirements.  

2. Help them better tap into industrial automation vision systems. This will allow them to make the right decision at the right time.

Considering the high labor turnover rate and even higher level of customer orders coming in, the second option is best. But it will only prove fruitful if you can reduce the training requirement and eliminate the technical skills requirement for using these systems.

At Zebra, we are committed to simplifying machine vision so the next generation of workers will feel comfortable and confident using your systems, and so you can fully realize the promise of industrial automation: increased operational visibility, speed, efficiency, and accuracy.

But if you want to keep top-quality goods moving out the door quickly, you need to make the same commitment. The tools are there. Today’s industrial automation solutions can be applied to multiple workflows – and different workflows over time. They can enable performance among the current generation of workers. Inspire possibilities among the next. And change everyone’s minds about the value and potential of industrial automation. For the first time ever, machine vision and fixed industrial scanning systems are one in the same and able to solve a myriad of problems at once.

So, I encourage you to give them a chance (even if you’ve done so before).

I know new challenges will crop up tomorrow, and a new generation of workers will soon follow. But I want you to know that Zebra will keep a close eye on what’s happening. We’ll work with you to apply these technologies in new ways, conduct onsite testing, validate solutions alongside your workers, and refine system designs based on your feedback. And we’ll do this as many times as needed. After all, what good is a “reinvented” wheel if it doesn’t help you get where you need to go?

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Editor’s Note:

You can learn more about what makes the design of Zebra’s machine vision and fixed industrial scanning systems so unique by visiting this webpage or watching this video:

If you’re curious how industrial automation can help you solve your current challenges, our solution engineers would be happy to talk through your concerns and options. You can reach them here

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Jim Witherspoon
Jim Witherspoon has more than 18 years of experience with machine vision and fixed industrial scanning technology and has worked in application engineering, sales, and management. Jim previously worked with many of the world’s top companies to install thousands of machine vision and fixed industrial scanning systems and solutions.
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