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Humans and machines: Better together

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Until the late 1970s, accountants used paper spreadsheets. Annual financial statements and financial forecasting were carried out by hand. One small mistake, and you had to start all over again. When the first spreadsheet software was introduced in 1979, many feared it spelled the end of the accountant. What used to take hours of manual labor took mere seconds in Visicalc—and it was error-free to boot.

But ten years later, the number of accountants had tripled. The reason why? The role had changed. Accountants had been handed a powerful tool that took care of repetitive and relatively simple tasks. By combining that tool with professional expertise and human creativity, accountants could deliver far more value—for example, by creating dynamic models. In short, Visicalc took over the drudgery, freeing accountants to add even greater value, and their number exploded as a result.

We’re currently seeing a similar phenomenon in maintenance. Thanks to the introduction of digital technology, the number of repetitive tasks that algorithms can do better, faster and cheaper than technicians keeps growing. And once again we see that the nature of the work is changing and increasing in value.



One example is condition monitoring. In the past, specialists traced out fixed routes to determine a pump’s condition based on manual measurements. That takes a lot of time, is inefficient (most pumps are usually doing fine) and doesn’t provide sufficient coverage, because there are simply far more pumps than specialists.

Today we see a growing number of online monitoring systems that can monitor asset health 24/7. As soon as a fault is detected, the specialist receives an alert that helps her narrow the scope of her root cause analysis. And that’s much more efficient: if an automated monitoring system can identify which machines are healthy, the specialist doesn’t need to visit them on a fixed route, and she can devote her attention to the bad actors.

In short: just as with Visicalc, the monitoring specialist uses digital tools to do the routine work so she can deliver a lot more value by concentrating on the creative, high-quality work that computers cannot do.

In 2019 Andrew Ng (one of Google Brain’s founders) said that artificial intelligence can take over tasks that a human needs roughly a second to think about. That number will grow to two seconds, then three, then more. So in the coming years, digital tools will be able to perform increasingly complex tasks in maintenance planning, machine monitoring, and the optimization of lifespan, energy use and production. When we combine these powerful tools with our creativity and expertise, the value of our profession will only grow. So I predict that engineering will become hot again and in ten years the number of maintenance engineers will have tripled—solving the current shortage of technicians in the process.

This is the English translation of an article that originally appeared in Dutch. View the original in the September 2021 edition of VAM magazine. Translated by Grayson Morris for Samotics.

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