We have been hearing for years about how robots will take over from humans and how they are increasingly set to replace employees. Now, however, it seems more and more likely that the use of these machines will actually create work opportunities. People with a physical, cognitive, or other type of impairment in particular stand to benefit from assistance from people-oriented technology. This is one of the results from the practical experiment carried out by TNO at Amfors, which involved the use of what is known as inclusive technology. Amfors is a company in Amersfoort that provides work for people who would otherwise encounter difficulties gaining access to the labour market.
“At Amfors, we believe it is important to commit to inclusive technology. It increases the opportunities for our employees to work more independently and to tackle more complex work. Moreover, it helps them enjoy their work more, and it means they can make a worthwhile contribution to society,” explains Amfors director Ronald de Koning with much enthusiasm.
Making difficult tasks easy
There are many vacancies in the manufacturing industry, yet at the same time there are people without a job. Inclusive technology makes difficult tasks easy and can help solve both problems. It means that employees with few educational qualifications can learn skills and perform to the best-possible effect. TNO has been carrying out research for many years into the use of inclusive technology for helping people who otherwise have difficulty finding work to get meaningful employment, and for ensuring that current employees can remain sustainably deployable. Physical or collaborative robots (cobots) take on some of the work that people with an impairment have difficulty with, such as physically demanding, hazardous, or monotonous work, or work that requires great precision. Augmented reality (AR) also makes it possible to project instructions at the place of work, so that employees without previous training can carry out tasks that would be otherwise impossible for them.
“The self-esteem of the employees had improved visibly within one to two hours of time spent working with the Operator Support System”
Technology is an opportunity, not a threat
“Collaboration between people and machines is very much a live issue at the moment, because it allows people with an impairment to do work that in other circumstances would be beyond them. This applies to companies that provide work specially for those who would otherwise have difficulty finding it and to regular businesses alike. In today’s competitive labour market it can be useful for firms to take on employees who they otherwise would not have considered. Technology, therefore, is not a threat, but actually offers numerous opportunities in the field of employment,” says TNO researcher Gu van Rhijn.
The opportunities of inclusive technology
In its research into these developments, TNO is working closely together with renowned institutes like the Arbeidsdeskundig Kennis Centrum (AKC), VU Amsterdam’s Athena Institute, and Technopolis. In order to examine the practical opportunities for people in a vulnerable position on the labour market, TNO is working in partnership with SBCM, the knowledge centre and employment and development fund and with Cedris, the national association for employment for those with limited labour market opportunities, in the Kennisalliantie Inclusie & Technologie (inclusion and technology knowledge alliance, KIT). This is opening the way for businesses that offer work to those with limited labour market opportunities to demonstrate through experiments that technology can bear fruit in this area. The results from all the projects will be made public through KIT.
“Measurements showed that the time cycle was reduced by 30 percent after three products had been assembled, thereby equalling the productivity levels of experienced employees”
Straight down to work - no experience necessary
This has been shown at Amfors, for example, where 1,150 people with little chance of joining the labour market work outside, in the metal, production, and cleaning industries, and elsewhere. The experiment involved employees who assemble the fittings for LED street lighting. Depending on the activities carried out by each employee, and on their educational qualifications, learning the required skills is usually a matter of weeks. During the pilot scheme at Amfors, TNO used an Operator Support System (OSS) that projects step-by-step work instructions on a work surface or on the product. Employees are able to see what they should do at that particular time, which means that people without any experience can start work straight away.
Highly promising results
The results from the experiments are very promising – a large majority have a positive view of the OSS. They are more comfortable with the projected instructions than having things explained verbally, and they are better able to remain focused on their work. Also, most say they can do more difficult work than was previously the case. Measurements show that the time cycle is reduced by 30 percent after three products have been assembled, thereby equalling the productivity levels of experienced employees. According to a supervisor of the group, the self-esteem of the employees improved visibly within one to two hours of time spent working. Working quickly and accurately gives people self-confidence and helps them enjoy their work.
Training and production costs fall
The Operator Support System has also been used and tested at various high-tech companies such as Thomas Regout, Omron, Bronkhorst, Variass, and Vekon in the assembly of complex and differing product variants. Here, too, the system has demonstrated its added value. Thanks to the OSS, inexperienced people are able to work as quickly and accurately as their experienced counterparts. Employees can be used much more flexibly and training and production costs are reduced.
“Inclusive technology increases the opportunities for our employees to work more independently and to tackle more complex work”
Interest among business sector in practical tests
“As a result, various sectors of the business world, especially manufacturing, are showing interest in our research and the practical tests,” says Harry de Boer of TNO Healthy Living. “Through technologies like cobots, exoskeletons, augmented and virtual reality, we can increase the opportunities of people who have difficulty accessing the labour market, while making them more attractive for employers. We have now shown that this can benefit both ‘sides’. The use of an OSS makes businesses less reluctant to take on people with an impairment in their organisation.”
Deployable at higher levels
More and more practical experiments are due to be held in the near future. After the initial positive results, a greater understanding is needed in order for inclusive technology to be scaled up. TNO would like to refine the technology by making it more relevant to people’s impairments and their skills and to various business processes. A greater understanding is also needed of the long-term effects of these technologies on people’s productivity, learning times, employability, and development. “It is not the technology that we start with, but rather with processes and people,” says Van Rhijn. “It is about which impairments and competencies, which production process, which tasks, and which operations. By identifying these aspects, you can create tailor-made systems and calibrate them individually. That way, people can be deployed more extensively, more broadly, and at a higher level.”
Do you have any questions or would you like more information about inclusive technology? If so, please contact Harry de Boer.