»Building a bridge to the future for work«

Lemgo /

Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies have long been part of day-to-day business in tech corporations - from service to internal processes and tools to products sold billions of times worldwide. And in industry, too, AI has already become deeply inscribed in production processes and established as a competitive advantage. But what about the local SME sector? How does the economy in Ostwestfalen-Lippe (OWL) benefit from the new achievements of AI, how do you create acceptance for the technologies and how can they have a positive impact on the daily business of manufacturing companies? In short, how can AI be used to secure a location?

These questions are addressed by the regional competence centre launched on 1 October: KIAM - KI in der Arbeitswelt des industriellen Mittelstands in OstWestfalenLippe - bundles the know-how of 18 companies, universities and research institutions in order to bring machine learning methods and AI increasingly into application in the immediate working environment of companies and to create acceptance. 

AI: Picking up and harnessing the momentum

Artificial intelligence methods are about to bring about far-reaching innovations and changes in society and the economy. AI systems are already supporting work processes, relieving employees and generating new business models. SMEs in particular are now faced with the challenge of using this momentum for their own benefit and making production more flexible, transparent, secure and efficient. In order to find opportunities and starting points for this in day-to-day business, there is often a lack of specialised personnel or clear organisational structures and technical requirements. KIAM could make a substantial contribution among the many transfer platforms and research projects on the topics of digital transformation and Industry 4.0: In addition to funding over the next five years of 10.7 million euros from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), this and one other project prevailed in a selection process against 47 applications as a "Competence Centre for Labour Research". Fraunhofer IOSB-INA from Lemgo contributes its extensive experience from numerous implementation projects in the field of human-machine interaction and assistance systems, especially its expertise in increasing user acceptance and human-centred technology design. Furthermore, the composition of the implementation partners is interesting: traditional companies such as Dr. Oetker, Wago and Miele are joined by the universities of Bielefeld and Paderborn, the TH OWL in Lemgo as well as the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. 

Technology acceptance is core topic

In the lighthouse projects, research institutions and companies come together to develop concrete solutions, formats and infrastructures that make AI technologies available in different use cases. This can involve in-house training and digital training programmes, AI-supported sales, personnel or sales planning,

or the optimisation of individual business processes.

or the optimisation of individual technical processes. In all sub-projects, the embedding in the respective corporate culture and the specific working environment with its domain knowledge and needs of the employees is central. For this reason, IG Metall is also part of the project consortium and the works councils are involved in the implementation. Especially in the implementation of assistance systems in the area of production or further training, in the case of organisational changes or interventions in the operational activity environment, acceptance by the users is indispensable. In Lemgo, they are very familiar with user-centred systems - so for good reason, Fraunhofer IOSB-INA will prepare and present the AI-based optimisations and information in the work environment in a user-friendly way at KIAM. 

Assistance systems: sensitive interface to the workforce

Assistance systems - such as the use of augmented reality (AR) - are used to convey content that is intended to make the work process more transparent throughout. On the one hand, the employee should benefit because the process and work steps are clearly defined and understood. For the Fraunhofer researchers, ergonomics is at least as important, i.e. the optimal configuration of work stations and activities in the production flow, in order to make work more pleasant and less stressful from a physical and mental point of view. This is particularly important in manual assembly. This should make the work process as such more efficient, e.g. with regard to material use and waste. It is obvious that the optimisation of such processes with the help of assistance systems requires valid scientific, interdisciplinary support as well as comprehensive and comprehensible documentation on all sides of the project participants.

Together with the companies Bosch Rexroth and Atos as well as the University of Paderborn, the Fraunhofer IOSB-INA Assistance Systems Research Group will work on two of KIAM's lighthouse projects: AI applications are to be successively implemented in an assembly workplace in such a way that it can be found out how the respective work processes can be better aligned and designed for humans. Fraunhofer evaluates the data from the AI and creates concepts in which form and abundance work instructions and assistance can be prepared and conveyed in a user-friendly way, or which type and which scope of data is used. 

KIAM: Transfer for more SMEs

A newly developed visualisation concept is to be tested and improved at eye level with the workforce. In the subsequent transfer part, the transferability of the results and tools to other SME partners in the Leading-Edge Cluster and throughout Germany is to be prepared On the basis of best practices, the researchers from Lemgo are to develop a methodology or an overarching concept with the companies on how the results of successfully implemented assistance systems can be transferred to other domains, industries and work processes. The diversity of the project partners - with different requirements and perspectives on these sensitive interfaces to workers - are at the same time a great challenge and a great advantage of the overall project.

Marc Brünninghaus, research associate at Fraunhofer IOSB-INA and expert in human-machine interaction, is looking forward to an exciting project: "In my opinion, the advantage of KIAM is the direct participation of workforces and SMEs. If we are successful with our systems in this way not only in large international corporations, but also in small companies through the intensive participation of people, we can speak of participatory AI concepts." The BMBF's two competence centres, one of which is located in Ostwestfalen-Lippe, offer a promising infrastructure here. For OWL, this is an opportunity to involve and include its regional players in a dynamic development process of new technologies. "It is nice to see that even more manageable production processes and team sizes are working with AI and that human-centred work concepts are moving into the centre, instead of large supply chains of corporations, where AI is already actively working today," Brünninghaus continues. 

Group manager Prof. Dr. Dr. Röcker adds: " We are excited about a great opportunity to shape the working world of the future together with companies and colleagues from the scientific community. The future has not yet been defined - it is up to us to shape it. KIAM offers the great potential to build a bridge to the future in the middle class of work today."