Ergonomics and the Ergonomist in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Industry 4.0 has brought about considerable innovation. The resulting trend is for today's industrial automation to incorporate new production technologies to improve working conditions, create new business models, boost plant productivity and enhance product quality.

From the mid-20th century to the present day, the requisites needed to make an Industrial Product competitive, whether it be a stand-alone machine or a production line, have changed radically.

In the post-war period (from 1950 until around 1970) a product had to be Functional. Over the following twenty years the main requisite shifted towards image - we might even say Beauty - where technical/engineering professionalism was coupled with the skills of the industrial designer.

Then, from the mid-1980s to about 2010, with the advent of a New Approach throughout what was then called the European Community, Beauty gave way to Safety and product design teams inevitably became more and more multidisciplinary.

In parallel, Ergonomics also evolved. It went from being a non-existent science in the first twenty-year period to a mandatory requirement of the Machinery Directive in the third twenty-year period.

However, since 2010, design has made further progress. It continues to do so today.

The current period is characterized by the prevalence of Technology, so much so that in 2011, in Germany, it was baptised as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, better known by the English term Industry 4.0.

Without going into the various Industry 4.0 enabling technologies (e.g. Digitalization, AR/VR, AI, Big Data, Machine Learning, Cybersecurity), the link between Humans and a Product designed in this Fourth Revolution is the Interface, now an essential part of any design concept.

The Interface is a designed element of the Human-devised Product that lets Humans engage with the Product and, consequently, control it.

One of the greatest challenges of this industrial innovation is to come up with a design solution that is People-friendly.

To achieve this, one needs to design easy-dialogue, easy-to-learn and, above all, Inclusive Interfaces that are easy to understand at both cognitive and physical level.

This is where Ergonomics or Human Factor Engineering comes into play, with the latter science aiming to define and control the nature of Human-System interaction (in our case, an industrial product).

One of the most commonly used Ergonomic design methods is User Centred Design (UCD): this is the practice of designing Products and Systems so they can be used for the required goals and purposes, with maximum efficiency, maximum satisfaction and minimum physical/mental stress. Crucially, the approach includes People with disabilities.

In this way, designing without discriminating becomes a distinctive aspect of positioning an industrial product on the market.

This makes Ergonomists an integral part of multidisciplinary design teams: indeed, they inevitably play a crucial role as they’re trained to communicate with people from a range of disciplines, in areas characterized by systems of increasing complexity.

Yet that’s not all.

The more complex the systems, the more the Ergonomist needs to seek out Simplicity and remind design teams never to forget that a system, a product, a machine or a production line must be designed to help the Person perform their tasks. In short, they must design with the Other in mind, not themselves.

Giorgio Cavassi, Eur.Erg
(Faentia Consulting Srl)