March 2020 | ISE Magazine 33
Blending technology with people
in the ergonomics of tomorrow
Collaboration, not competition, with machines will boost safety, productivity
By Bobbie Watts
34 ISE Magazine |
Blending technology with people in the ergonomics of tomorrow
It has always been in our DNA
to strive for a balanced human/
system equation. Whether it’s the
design of the primitive ax tai-
lored to the shape of the hand or
Hippocrates’ surgical tool layout
for ease of use, the principles of ergo-
nomics are woven through time, even
before the Industrial Revolution. In
more recent history, we have witnessed
changes in industry and society that
have challenged this equations balance.
From the Industrial Revolution
through the Information Age, how
workers and consumers interact with
their work and products has provided
unique challenges to the ergonomics
field and done much to shape it into
the discipline we see today. Now with
industrial and societal changes well
underway with Industry 4.0, Factories
of the Future (
future) and general shifts in society, we
are primed for even more changes that
will alter the work and cultural scene,
impact human/system interactions and
change the way we approach ergonom-
ics, and at a faster rate than before.
What do ergonomics practitioners,
teachers, students, leaders and other in-
fluencers need to be prepared for? What
is in store for ergonomics in 2020 and
Industry 4.0 is already changing the
view of the factory floor with cur-
rent workspaces being reconfigured
into cyber-physical spaces. Enabled by
digitalization and connectivity through
smart technology like industrial inter-
net of things (IIoT), this new industrial
world is shifting us toward increasing
automation, changing the denition
of many traditional work roles. How-
ever, as opposed to an emphasis on
systems designed to completely replace
workers, we expect to see a focus on
human-machine collaborations in the
near future. These collaborations al-
ready are emerging on the work floor
used as tools to mitigate physical and
mental risks and improve productivity
and quality for specific tasks.
As examples, collaborative robots
(cobots) are sharing workspace with
workers and taking on their highly
repetitive task duties; virtual and aug-
mented reality tools are being used to
enhance training and process informa-
tion sharing, reducing cognitive loads;
and passive exoskeletons are being de-
ployed on assembly lines to support
workers, literally, who perform static,
awkward work.
Office workspaces are seeing the
propagation of collaborative tools as
well, such as wearables to influence
worker posture and smart glasses to re-
place traditional computer screens. In-
dustries’ investment in these tools is on
the rise and is predicted to grow. We
can expect to see continuous progres-
sion in the advancements of their ca-
pabilities and their proliferation in the
workplace. And as the general public
becomes more aware of these techno-
logical advancements through news
stories, entertainment and advance-
ments in consumer products, it can
lead to an expectation of which that
industry and ergonomists will need to
be mindful.
Whether using full automation or
collaborative systems, workers still
need to be central to the design and
implementation of these tools for effec-
tiveness and sustainability. Of course,
designing for and around the human is
nothing new for ergonomics. But how
do we do it effectively in this rapidly
changing new industrial world where
the worker and machine are becoming
more as one?
Besides being prepared to use our
expertise to guide decision-makers on
which tasks to automate to achieve the
optimal return on investment, ergono-
mists will need to be prepared to pro-
vide guidance on the design of these
complex collaborative systems. We
need to ensure that sound ergonomics
principles are considered in IIoT-con-
nected systems where communication
and awareness between the worker and
machine in shared spaces will be critical
for safety and efficiency. That includes
principles such as understanding mul-
tiple user expectations and capabilities
in human-in-the-loop (HitL) scenarios
where the cognitive load will increas-
ingly outweigh the physical load.
In this new industrial world, our goal
should not be just to enhance worker
performance and safety in these shift-
ing factory landscapes; it should be to
take advantage of it as well. With the
connectivity of IIoT, we will have tons
of data at our fingertips. We need to be
prepared to use emerging innovative
solutions, such as wearables, advance-
ments in electromyography (EMG), ar-
tificial intelligence (AI) and other smart
devices, to capture this data – physical,
environmental and psychosocial – in
real-time. We then can harness that in-
formation for faster and more accurate
More ergonomic
ideas on IISE
Hear Bobbie Watts discuss “The Allure
of Ergonomics” in a recent episode of
Problem Solved: The IISE Podcast at
March 2020 | ISE Magazine 35
risk analyses and potentially custom-
izable mitigations based on individual
worker or machine data via feedback
Big data analytics should be consid-
ered to further analyze the collective
data for trends and insights to guide us
into making quicker big-picture deci-
sions. Automating both the data col-
lection and analysis duties will free us
to focus more of our efforts on solution
development, where our ergonomics
expertise is most needed.
Technology is not the only factor
altering the future of human/system
interactions in the workplace. Separate
from automation and digitalization, we
see dramatic changes in the workforce
itself. The demographics of the work-
ing population and the jobs being per-
formed are becoming more diverse.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics (, the labor force par-
ticipation rate for the oldest segment of
the population (55 and older) is rising.
This adds to the challenge of multiple
generations – each with their own style
of work and motivation – working
alongside each other.
Additionally, as populations become
more ethnically diverse, dependent
on geographical location, so does the
workforce. And with flex work, hot de-
sking, telecommuting and the myriad
possible workspaces that come with the
gig economy, where a worker works is
all but standard. Ergonomists will be
challenged even more to recognize and
mitigate risks with these variables in
play. As such, we need to be prepared
to manage the balance between the
physical and cognitive capabilities of
an aging population with the needs of
increasing automation. We should be
prepared to manage even more non-
standard work activities and to enable
knowledge-sharing through a variety
of media to reach and engage a variety
of workers, such as using social-media
based tools, microlearning techniques,
geofencing or gamification.
Beyond the technical and cultural
changes to the work, workers and
workspaces, evolving strategies reshap-
ing business initiatives can mean fur-
ther paradigm shifts for ergonomics
in the future. Ergonomists will need
to focus their efforts on having a seat
at the table with corporate initiatives
driven by changes in business and lead-
ership strategies, such as sustainability,
digitalization, employee experience,
diversity and inclusion, and well-being.
All have far-reaching impacts on ergo-
nomics and vice versa.
As these initiatives shift to meet busi-
ness needs and societal expectations,
ergonomists need to be on board. For
us to proactively shape business struc-
ture, plans and goals for the support
of our ergonomics purpose, becom-
ing more embedded in these business
initiatives will be more than a “nice to
have” in the future; it will be a neces-
sity, especially as businesses transition
into cyber-physical spaces.
The future will bring about many
changes to the world and consequently
our field, aspects of which we are cur-
rently managing today. But throughout
those changes, we need to hold onto
what has brought us success: standard
approaches we have used to meet the
challenges of the past, such as preven-
tion in design, participatory ergonom-
ics and a proactive systems approach to
ergonomics programs. By keeping our
nger on the pulse of whats coming,
heeding lessons learned and staying
true to our ergo DNA, we will be well
prepared for future success.
As an African proverb says: “For
tomorrow belongs to the people who
prepare for it today.
Bobbie Watts, Ph.D., CPE, has more than
20 years of experience in industrial engineer-
ing, ergonomics and human factors. She is
currently director of ergonomics for Michelin
Americas, where she manages the ergonomics
program and network for activities including
tire manufacturing, logistics and tire servic-
ing. She received her bachelors degree in
industrial engineering from Clemson Uni-
versity and both her masters and Ph.D.
in industrial and systems engineering from
Auburn University. Her work experience
includes roles as corporate human factors
engineer for UPS, consultant for the U.S.
Postal Service and American Express, and
corporate ergonomics manager for Coca-Cola
Refreshments. She is a member of IISE and
the Applied Ergonomics Society. Watts was
featured in ISE magazine’sWhat’s Your
Story,” Page 66, March 2019.
As opposed to an emphasis
on systems designed to
completely replace workers,
we expect to see a focus
on human-machine
collaborations in the
near future.