Reducing Cognitive Overhead

If you have a smart printer, it will reorder ink for you so you never have to order ink, and you never have to worry about running out. Alexa can automate your lights and temperature control.These tricks are called “reducing cognitive overhead” — setting up the environment to automate human choices.

Our brains are already expert at this, and it’s a good thing. If we had to put extensive thought into every one of the hundreds of choices we make every day, our brains would literally get cooked by the amount of energy required. Instead, our brains are designed to slip into automated habit loops whenever possible. This leaves the higher thinking parts of the brain free for — well, higher thought. It also explains why it’s so easy for us to turn towards work when we drive out on the weekend, even if our actual goal is the farmers market.

Cognitive load in manufacturing

Cognitive load in the manufacturing environment has generally been overlooked in favor of concerns about repetitive motion, ergonomics, and more specifically physical aspects of the work environment. Workspace designers are beginning to rethink this.

One of the areas where cognitive overhead can be an issue is in situations in which workers have to make decisions quickly. Speeding up a process will almost always lead to greater cognitive overhead. Speeding up a process is also a very common goal in the context of manufacturing.

Practice and experience reduce cognitive overhead, creating a “second nature” experience that involves muscle memory and habit loops, not thought and problem solving. But technology can also help. A machine that recognizes the RFID code on a workpiece and responds with the most appropriate program for that workpiece keeps human workers from having to recognize the workpiece quickly and remember the appropriate steps for multiple workpieces.

Relying on short-term memory

Just as practice can reduce cognitive overhead, reliance on short term memory can increase it. For example, if the user interface shows information on one screen, and then expects the operator to remember that information while moving on to the next screen, cognitive overhead is significantly increased. All the other actions being taken become less efficient, because the increased mental energy of holding information in the mind — something humans aren’t very good at — creates unnecessarily high levels of cognitive overhead.

Next time you’re planning a workspace and configuring machinery and human operators within that space, think about cognitive overhead. Using technology to reduce cognitive overhead allows your operators to make better use of their time, increases safety, and decreases errors.

If your machines include Rexroth electric motion control systems, reduce cognitive overhead for yourself by putting our phone number into your smartphone: 479-422-0390. Label it “Rexroth Service.” Then, when you need Rexroth service, you’ll find it easily and make the right call the very first time. We offer phone service, field service, factory repair and reman, and emergency replacement units to reduce downtime.


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