Reframing AGVs as coworkers

Building the case for human-centered design in AGV development and implementation

Before starting, let’s get aligned on a few key assumptions:

  1. Replacing human labor is the most fundamental reason for purchasing an automated guided vehicle (AGV). There are others, but that’s the big one.
  2. If the technology were ready and ROI was reasonable, every manufacturing plant and warehouse would be completely automated end-to-end. No humans needed.
  3. The technology isn’t there yet. Humans will continue to work alongside AGVs for the foreseeable future. In fact, if an AGV requires any form of human interaction to effectively complete a task, it depends on humans.

I’ll put #1 another way: Manufacturing and warehousing employees know that AGVs are coming to replace their jobs (even if it’s not exactly true). Anyone trying to introduce an AGV into an environment that includes human workers immediately has this working against them.

Lest we forget. Source: Wikipedia

Humans and machines have always had an emotionally and physically tenuous relationship. Going back to the early 19th century Luddites (also known as The Machine-Breakers), human labor has been threatened, but also enhanced, by new technology. The fallout can be disastrous, and not just for the machines.

Fast-forward to the 1950s when Barrett Electronics introduced the first AGVs in the US. The unions saw AGVs as such a threat to their jobs that some even resorted to sabotaging AGV systems. The threat is still palpable in manufacturing plants and warehouses today, even if employees aren’t bashing machines with sledgehammers. Ask anyone who has implemented AGVs in their facility and I’m certain you’ll hear a story or two about employees deliberately playing tricks on AGVs to make them seem less effective.

But this post isn’t about our fear of technology stealing jobs. It’s about:

  • The fact that AGVs depend on humans in order to reach their full potential
  • Building empathy for the change AGVs bring to their human coworkers
  • How AGV manufacturers and purchasers can use human-centered design to develop for this reality rather than ignore it

AGVs depend on humans in order to reach their full potential

The introduction of AGVs into a work environment often brings significant change to work processes. When B.T. Karsh researched the impact of new technology on end users, he found:

“Because so much typically does change with the introduction of new technology, employee resistance is likely which may reduce or prevent the effective use of the technology.”

This is not unique to AGVs. You may have even experienced something similar when your company changed email programs or introduced a new process. It’s a natural element of human behavior to resist change. Simply introducing technology like AGVs into an environment that includes humans does not guarantee success. Husain et al., found the same thing when researching the effects of technology on performance:

“Technology alone cannot guarantee a rise in performance to the desired level. The quality of the enhanced system still depends upon the manual elements of the organization, viz people.”

Similarly, Lee and Leonard found that,

“Without cooperation [with humans], AGV investments will not attain the desired benefits, and may become a bad investment.”

Traditionally, AGVs were intentionally separated to ensure human safety and avoid interference with tasks the AGV was performing. Modern implementation is different though. AGVs are now working closer and closer with their human coworkers, performing tasks that require more interaction and collaboration.


Building empathy for the change AGVs bring to their human coworkers

Imagine for a moment you are an operator of a machine press in a factory. You’ve been working at this facility for five years now. At first, you moved around to several different jobs, but for the past two years you’ve found your groove in this component assembly line. You’ve seen coworkers come and go, but you’ve also built strong relationships with the core team on your line. You’re part of a high-functioning unit that is often praised for exceeding saftey and performance targets at the monthly staff meetings.

Your core job consists of loading the press with material, quality checking the results, and taking the finished components to the next station for drilling. Carol is the one who usually brings you the material to load into the press. You like Carol. Her kids often come over to your house in the evenings to play basketball in your driveway with your two sons. She’s been delivering the material for about 9 months now, and at least once each day she’ll tell you a quick joke when she drops off the pallet. They are rarely any good, but you always laugh anyway.

When the press has run through the material, you take the finished product over to Station D for drilling. On the way, you’ll say hi to John and Dave in quality. The three of you are in a fantasy football league, and you’ll often lob playful insults to each other when you pass. When you get to Station D, you hand off your components to Steve. Steve is quiet but is the most experienced person on the team. He was the one who trained you on the press and you still look up to him. The whole team does. He never gives you more than a head nod, but when he does you know you’re doing a good job.

You also have a good relationship with your shift supervisor and you feel comfortable bringing her suggestions and concerns. One time you brought her an idea to change the delivery process to be more efficient. She mapped it out and got the idea approved by her manager within a week. She’s always looking for opportunities get the team training or move people to more interesting jobs as they gain experience.

Two weeks ago new machines were delivered — management called them AGVs. They said no one was losing their job, that production was expanding and these machines will help us move more product out the door. It seemed great at first. It kind of felt like you were living in a sci-fi movie with these machines running around everywhere blinking lights and beeping.

Now the AGVs deliver new materials to your station automatically when you’re running out. You don’t ever have to leave your station when the press has finished a batch because another AGV comes to pick up the finished components and take them to Station D. Your team is putting up record production numbers right now and management brings people by your area to show off how modern this factory is. It kind of feels like you’re in a fish tank.

You didn’t think you’d miss Carol’s bad jokes, but the AGV doesn’t do anything but beep and blink its lights twice when it drops off material. The one that picks up the finished components does the same thing. You still see John and Dave, but only at lunch and your conversations aren’t as lively anymore. You heard Steve is moving to the smaller factory down the road, even though he’s been at this one for more than 15 years.

Yesterday you told your supervisor about an idea you had for moving two batches at a time instead of just one. She threw up her hands and said something about the new technology planning committee controlling everything now. She can’t even get your team more training without going through the committee.


This is a fictional example, but the same changes and challenges have been identified by Lee and Leonard.

“Operators work in a much more disciplined and constrained environment, with his actions determined by other operators and the interface between himself and the AGVS.”

They continue, finding,

“…traditional preferences by operators for certain jobs are no longer permitted. Scheduling decisions are now based upon the master production schedule, and alterations are only allowed for good reasons, such as non-availability of tooling.”

I’m not suggesting these are reasons to avoid bringing AGVs into the work environment, but careful consideration should be made to the far-reaching effects of AGVs on the lives of their human coworkers. Empathy can be a powerful tool for positive change, but knowing the change and designing for it are two different things.


Using human-centered design in AGV development and implementation

The term human-centered design was first popularized by IDEO in the 1990s. It is defined as:

“…a process that starts with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. Human-centered design is all about building a deep empathy with the people you’re designing for…”

What does this look like for designing and implementing AGVs?

  1. Discover real stories like the one written above. Building empathy for the people affected by your product or service is the cornerstone of human-centered design. Don’t be satisfied with personas. Spend time with actual people who might be interacting with the AGV and tell their story, not some washed-out version of it.
  2. Identify interaction points. What are the moments that typically happen between two people, but will now happen between human and AGV? When the AGV intervenes in a human relationship, how might it facilitate building new relationships? In many cases, workers will feel more isolated when their human interactions are replaced. How might the AGV facilitate other forms of communication and connection? How might AGV designers compensate for the reduction in social collaboration?
  3. Design. You now have the raw material for design solutions or implantation strategies to try. Now it’s time to prototype the ideas and validate hypotheses. You don’t even need an AGV to prototype new interactions. Grab a couple of co-workers and role play the scenarios you sketched out in the steps above. Use the build-measure-learn cycle to keep improving the ideas until you find something that feels viable. It doesn’t matter if you’re an AGV manufacturer or you’re installing them in your facility.
  4. Involve: As Lee and Leonard found, when you involve those who will interact with the AGV at the beginning “… people see the system’s logic and organization, and this negates any beliefs of ‘technology to replace human-beings’ by showing the true benefits, especially changes in job responsibility, as opposed to displacement.”
  5. Train: Training employees when an AGV is introduced needs to go beyond safety to include managing social perceptions. In a fascinating paper, Duncan et al. found that, “Audience response to a robot crash depended on whether the audience had seen how the actors interacted with the robot “baby fairies.” If they had not seen the actors treating a robot gently, an audience member would likely throw the robot expecting it to fly or handle it roughly. If they had seen the actors with the robots, the audience appeared to adopt the same gentle style and mechanisms for re-launching the micro-helicopter. The difference in audience behavior suggests that the principle of social proof will govern how untrained humans will react to robots.” Lee and Leonard also conclude that, “correctly training employees allows experience to generate additional benefits of the technology, and management should be educated to change the way they view investments.”

The result?

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