Professor David Romero: Industry 4.0 needs now and in the future a human-centric approach

Mexican Professor David Romero has Sweden as a second home. “I hope I can participate in the Lucia procession as “Lucio”. My favorite Swedish food is a dessert, ‘prinsesstårta’ – and I like the concept of ‘fika’, I actually have a ‘fika-kit’ in my Mexican office”.

David Romero is Professor of Advanced Manufacturing at the Tecnológico de Monterrey University in Mexico. We got the chance to talk to David about his collaborative research and his view on Swedish production research and innovation when he visited Sweden in December.

David’s research focuses on human-machine interaction in production. In 2016, he was one of the leading researches introducing the concept of “The Operator 4.0” to the world, where the authors mean that to realize the full potential of Industry 4.0 and achieve a socially sustainable manufacturing industry, humans – assisted or augmented by technology – must be at its heart.

During the industrial development, there’s been an ongoing discussion about how far automation will go. The common view used to be that everything that could be automated should be automated, and humans replaced with machines. Some years ago, we could read headlines like “A robot will take your job” in the news.

Rather than the binary thinking where it’s either machine or human we need to think human plus machine. Then we can achieve new efficiency levels that neither machines nor humans can achieve alone, says David.

David means that Industry 4.0 should be about technology helping humans to develop their physical, sensorial and cognitive capabilities.

– We like to build smart production systems that are sustainable in all aspects, where we use technology for propelling humankind forward and upward. From focusing on how to automate everything and replace humans with technology, we’ve now found the correct direction – to use robotics, automation and digitalization technologies to assist and augment humans and team-up with machines to design a better future of work.

So why is David so interested in the human perspective of production?

– Because humans are the ones that bring things forward, that’s part of our uniqueness. AI can absolutely support us in innovation, incremental innovation can be led by AI and supported by humans, but when it comes to radical innovation the human brain is crucial and humans should lead the way with their creativity and ingenuity.

The publication of The Operator 4.0 made David known as the ‘LEGO professor’. “When we first launched the idea of The Operator 4.0, we tried to find a way to illustrate the concept in a way that it could resonate also with people outside academia. We then came up with the idea of using LEGO to visualize our ideas”.

A human-centric strategy – Sweden’s unique approach

David has been a visiting professor both at Chalmers University of Technology and Luleå University of Technology. Why does he choose to return to Sweden to work with Swedish researchers?

– As a global citizen, I call Sweden my second home, says David. Why I’m so comfortable working with Swedish researchers? Well, I like the philosophy of “lagom”, both in terms of sustainability and innovation but also to find the right balance in what to automate and not. What is the right balance between humanizing and automatizing tasks in a smart production system, what’s the “lagom” of Industry 4.0?

Besides “lagom”, David also mentioned “samarbete” – the idea of collaboration – as needed to move forward in a balanced way. “Rättvisa” (fairness), “balans” (balance) and “framåtanda” – the ambition to move things forward – are other attractive aspects of the Swedish culture according to David.

– I think this makes Sweden’s innovation ecosystem quite unique, says David. For example, I was very happy to see how Sweden presented itself as the official partner country of Hannover Messe 2019, the presentation was all about collaboration and innovation.

So, what is David’s view of the Swedish strategy for production research and innovation?

– What I find unique with Produktion2030, that stands out in comparison with other countries’ strategies for Industry 4.0, is that Sweden and Produktion2030 put people at the center, David says. Every country with the same financial capabilities can have access to the same technology, the competitive advantage will come from the people; their creativity, ingenuity and innovation, how they choose to use technology, develop it and so on.

As an example, David mentions the Graduate School Produktion2030 where Swedish universities collaborate to train the future workforce of Sweden.

To put people at the heart of the national strategy will make Sweden continue to be at the top when it comes to for example competitiveness, innovation, and work-life balance, says David.

Mexico and Sweden, differences and similarities

– Mexico is a country with a lot of contract-manufacturing, David tells. Today the industry mainly focuses on competitive manufacturing and production assembling.

The Tecnológico de Monterrey is working close to the industry, focusing on applied research, and is quite similar to many universities in Sweden according to David.

– I think Mexico’s biggest challenge is that we need to become more innovative when it comes to production. We need to become more competitive regarding the design and engineering of national products. Sweden already has good design, good engineering and good manufacturing. Mexico, so far, has put all eggs in the same basket, manufacturing. We need to be more competitive across the whole value chain, says David, and continues;

– Though, we have some great advantages. We have a lot of natural assets, a young workforce and the creativity is there. We just need to learn how to industrialize it – to systematize our innovation capabilities and for example, protect our intellectual propriety.

Cognitive interaction, David’s next focus

Next, David will focus his research more on how technology can assist cognitive capabilities.

– In the beginning, we did a lot of work from exoskeletons and other types of wearables and support systems to collaborative robots for The Operator 4.0. Now we’d like to focus more on The Cognitive Operator 4.0. We see that collective intelligence will be created as a combination of human intelligence and AI. Joint cognitive systems will be created, bringing the smartness of humans and machines together. We will focus on how to build this new cognitive interaction between humans and machines. The new “Cognitive Operator 4.0 Typology” is planned to be released next year.

In the factory of the future humans, robots and AI are working together, David says.

Again, he mentions Sweden being at the front line:

– When everyone was talking about the Internet of Things, the Swedish company ABB instead talked about the Internet of Things, Services and People – where “Things” equal smart machines, “Services” equal AI, and “People” equal Operators 4.0, David concludes.