Manufacturing is often thought of as a hands-on, in-person business. It relies on many kinds of teamwork, from gathering around the drawing board to troubleshooting machinery—things that have almost always happened face to face. But the pandemic forced companies to undertake major operational changes to help keep their employees safe.
The traditional reliance on hands-on teamwork made the spring of 2020 a difficult period. However, after the initial shock of shutdowns, shops quickly began to figure out ways to return to production while also reducing employees' face-to-face exposure. You could say they were prototyping new ways of working together.
As in any product development effort, there's been testing along the way. Wrong turns have been corrected; efficiencies have been discovered. Now is a great time to take stock of what we've learned and look to the future. Here are four ways that manufacturing companies have found to integrate remote work into their operations.
1. Using Tools Already In Place
A year ago, the idea of working from home was not on the radar for most shops. Fortunately, many were already running the enterprise management software backbone that could enable the front office to work remotely.
The industry has been transitioning to enterprise management software to coordinate production schedules for years. The pandemic forced many shops to finally digitize the last of their legacy paper job travelers, and this will likely be a lasting change. Fully integrated enterprise management software will continue to improve visibility and efficiency, even after front office workers eventually return.
2. Moving to Virtual Collaboration
The most immediate challenge posed by the pandemic was how to help non-essential staff work from home. When front office staff moved off site, the need to communicate at a distance became critical. Email and one-to-one phone calls helped keep things running, but they proved to be inadequate and inefficient for some tasks. Teleconferencing software, a well-developed technology that many companies had only dabbled in before the pandemic, quickly became a critical tool. Workers could call in from afar while fabrication continued, online meetings could bring sales staff together with customers, programmers could talk with shift managers, and technicians could discuss machine setups with operators on the shop floor. Critically, these discussion were not limited to one-to-one conversations. Larger video meetings exposed the different perspectives and areas of expertise of several collaborators attacking a shared goal.
After the pandemic, face-to-face meetings will return. But many workers will still need to be everywhere at once. Specialists who work across multiple sites will likely continue to use teleconferencing to save travel time, and many businesses will find it’s more efficient to bring vendors, customers, and staff members together virtually whenever possible. During the pandemic, companies have learned how to foster efficient and effective group collaboration in a virtual space rather than a conference room, and these lessons will be valuable well into the future.
3. Strategizing for Hybrid Staffing
For jobs that can’t be done off-site, many shops adopted a hybridized work schedule that brought necessary workers onto the production floor in stages or part-time, minimizing the risks of in-person gatherings. This has required compromise. In normal circumstances, it’s better to have all your specialists and technicians available throughout a production run, but hybridized schedules have forced shops to think strategically about staffing.
Hybrid schedules spread out staff by having workers come in on staggered shifts or having them work alternate days, and in some cases allowing them to spend part of their shifts working from home. That presents unavoidable challenges—the crew member who set up the tool cribs and cued the CNC programming may have to leave the shop before the machine’s operator arrives. The scheduling forces the staff to be more flexible, communicating with off-site specialists to handle problems they may not have encountered before.
Scheduling will likely return to normal when the pandemic ends, especially at smaller and medium-sized shops that might have less robust IT infrastructure. But the multidisciplinary teamwork is here to stay, and there are signs that some organizations see an advantage in maintaining hybrid WFH/in-person schedules into the future. Keeping a leaner staff on site during the pandemic has cultivated an adaptable attitude towards learning new skills that will make operations more resilient in the future.
4. Embracing Emerging Technologies
The industry is also turning to emergent technologies that reduce headcount and allow operators to monitor and control manufacturing machinery from a distance. Investments in automation, virtual reality, and remote monitoring could pay dividends in a post-COVID world.
Automation had been making inroads in the industry before the pandemic, but the transformation has undoubtedly accelerated. Instead of simply reducing labor costs, automated machinery became the key to reducing staff levels and maintaining social distancing on the shop floor. Many small and mid-size shops see the potential of “cobots”—robots that can safely share workspaces with human machinists—to increase the shop’s efficiency while keeping staff members at a safe distance.
Many shops are also showing increasing interest in virtual reality and mixed reality displays that give off-site workers greater visibility into operations. The mixed reality technology uses a headset to display a 3D rendering that lets users rotate and manipulate virtual objects, giving a far more detailed view than traditional fixed screens. These displays enable in-depth examination of prototypes or training on new tools, letting staff literally lean in and see details that a webcam might miss.
Remote machine monitoring technology has also made incredible strides in recent years. Vibration and temperature sensors are becoming cheaper and more miniaturized, expanding their potential uses. Instead of having an operator personally inspect bearings and tool heads for wear, connected sensors can be integrated into mechatronic systems that predict premature failure in tools or machine parts and provide data to an off-site technician who can evaluate the situation from afar.
These high-tech innovations are not cheap, and they can be difficult to integrate into the production floor. Their value should be thought of as a long-term proposition. Automation will continue to cut labor costs and improve safety, VR displays could become a commonplace training and troubleshooting tool, and remote sensors may quickly pay for themselves in reduced downtime.
In 2020, many companies had no choice but to defer investments in technology and process improvements. As economic activity appears to be picking up rapidly in 2021, now is a great time to decide which investments can best support future resilience and performance.