7 June 2021 Share

eMagazine Industry 4.0

Human Centered Industry 4.0

Industry 4.0 is often referred to as a new industrial revolution and the recent COVID pandemic has further accelerated the already impressive level of investment in new technologies. However, no real transformation can happen if people are not put at the centre of the transformation. Successful implementation of the Industry 4.0 paradigm requires a joint design of technological and organizational variables, with the aim of designing technologies for humans and not instead of humans. Augmentation strategies through participatory design is the promising avenue to a more resilient and smarter manufacturing


Raffaella Cagliano, Professor of People Management and Organization, Co-Director Obstervatory Industry 4.0 Transition, Politecnico di Milano

Digital technologies are nowadays one of the central factors in the transformation of any organization. In the manufacturing context, digitalization is often associated to the concept of Smart Manufacturing or Industry 4.0. Someone even talks about a fourth industrial revolution, referring to the transition towards a new paradigm of interconnected, digitalized and intelligent production systems.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been a kind of turning point in this process. As also clearly stated in the recent sixth annual State of Manufacturing Report (Fictiv, 2021), digital transformation has become a business imperative, and no longer a “nice to have” or an optional strategic lever. In fact, those companies that have been able to thrive during the COVID-19 year and have shown higher resilience are the ones that invested more in digital technologies in the years before the pandemic. Even during the crisis, investment in digital transformation – also in manufacturing – increased hugely (see e.g. Deloitte, 2021).

Despite this, the results of the introduction of new technologies do not always fulfil promises and in many cases the investments tend to be higher than the advantages. Many change management problems are mentioned as possible cause, and many lament a lack of competencies within the organization, or a lack of right culture, mindset or other.

During our recent years of research on Smart Manufacturing at the School of Management of the Politecnico di Milano, we had the opportunity to study many successful cases of companies that were able to transform their manufacturing systems into completely new models and to improve their operations significantly; often they were even able to rethink their business model and to offer completely new lines of products or services as a consequence of the new capabilities developed and the opportunities brought by the introduction of the new technologies. At the same time, many of these companies were also able to readily react to the COVID crisis, showing a resilience that was higher than the average. They were able to move many activities to a remote or virtual space, to schedule work in a flexible way to accommodate the needs and constraints of people during the emergency, and to introduce health and safety measures more rapidly and effectively.

These companies have a common approach to digital transformation: to put people at the centre of the transformation. We can recognize this approach from two main elements. First of all, they introduced digital technologies within the context of a clear strategy for operations improvement, where technology is seen mainly as a way to facilitate or augment human physical or cognitive capabilities, rather than substitute them. Technologies, on the one hand, are used to facilitate the work of operators by providing all the relevant information, guidance and support that is needed to operate in the most effective way, and to take away those tasks that are heavy, dangerous or where humans don’t add specific value compared to machines, leaving in this way more space to people to contribute according to their most valuable characteristics. Even more, some applications of Industry 4.0 technologies are designed to augment the operators’ potential by providing them with all the data and information needed to make them able to manage complex production systems autonomously and contribute to continuously improve the processes and the systems themselves. Thus, technologies are not used instead of humans, but for humans to enhance their work and contribution.

Second, these companies adopted a systemic approach to technology design and implementation that allowed them to design a system where technology works for humans. This systemic approach requires that technological and organizational factors are designed together, according to the well-known – but not so often used – socio-technical approach. If technology has to support human work, the technical and social systems should be designed together to exploit the joint advantage of the two systems and to design work and processes where the potential of technology and humans are fully exploited. A more common approach is instead the one where technology is designed first, and the consequences of technology on people are managed afterward, trying to adapt a posteriori the knowledge, culture but even the predisposition of people to the technology, with poor results in most cases. This mistake has been perpetuated in every major technological wave or revolution.

Instead, in many successful cases we observed that the joint design of the technology and the work system is realized though participatory approaches, where people are engaged not just in the last phases of change, to inform them or to test the new systems, but instead since the early phases of the project. Operators are asked to express their needs, to provide early feedback on the new systems and sometimes even to provide ideas to further improve or innovate the production systems. When this level of involvement is achieved, the manufacturing system will benefit from the transformation even after the implementation of the technologies, since people are able to continuously improve the way they work and they use the technology, crafting their jobs according to the potentialities discovered in the technologies and in the data that have been made available. This idea of participation, involvement and diffused creativity is coherent with the principles of design thinking that we have seen used in some of the most advanced cases in our study, and that can constitute a new frontier for the application of the methodology outside the context in which it originated.



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