Connect Workers, Elevate Effectiveness
EP Editorial Staff | July 29, 2020
Digitally connected employees are safer, more efficient, and better problem solvers.
For all the concern that technology innovations will increasingly remove people from the manufacturing equation, we have yet to see robots powering the world. In fact, the need for human workers is arguably more important than ever. With 2.4-million manufacturing jobs predicted to go unfilled by 2028, and nearly 70% of large organizations reporting talent shortages, there is an evident skills gap that needs to be solved.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted these shortcomings. Unexpected plant closures and employee absences due to infections destabilized already fragile supply chains, as manufacturers struggled to meet demand for certain products. As industries recover and rebuild, the likelihood that the pandemic will accelerate the retirement of older workers who are at greater health risk is very real, widening the skills gap even further. It begs the question: How are human industrial workers expected to ramp up production and quality when their organizations may already be short staffed?
Connecting workers through technology is one tangible solution. By digitally connecting employees to colleagues, information, systems, and machines to improve frontline operations, organizations are more empowered to make informed decisions and be more efficient without compromising safety. The technology that supports this can enable workers to perform better in nearly every aspect of their roles, helping to eclipse immediate productivity losses that may come with talent shortages. Connected-worker technology does not power the work; it powers the human behind the work. There are few plant-floor scenarios that do not involve a human worker, so it is essential to help align human capabilities with the industry 4.0 evolution.
Perhaps the most obvious value-add of connected-worker technology is improved efficiency. The first step is to digitize standard operating procedures (SOPs), which have historically been documented on paper and are difficult to update at scale. Digital SOPs are optimized for mobile devices and can include methods of communication and collaboration that are now commonplace, such as SMS text, photos, videos, and real-time instant messaging.
The benefits of digital SOPs are clear for training new workers and keeping current workers connected and up to date during times of uncertainty. From a training perspective, new workers can get up to speed quickly instead of relying on close direction by a more seasoned worker. Newer employees also can leverage technology to guide their work and ensure they’re completing it correctly.
Existing workers also can improve productivity. The plant floor is a complex beast—tasks need to be performed with care or they could lead to negative production consequences such as ruined end product or unintended plant shut-down or downtime. Connected-worker technology not only helps ensure every process is adhered to and that steps aren’t skipped but can connect frontline workers in real time with co-workers and enterprise systems if any issues unfold on the floor.
Better Problem Solving
Connected-work methodologies and technology don’t just digitize SOPs. They capture operator and system input during work execution, measure and analyze data to identify trends, and ultimately provide clear insight, not only into their own self-management performance, but also for supervisors, managers and executives tasked with improving safety, productivity, and quality.
Information about who was assigned to what task, time to complete the tasks, and the outcomes as a result of those completed tasks can all be captured and disseminated to the proper teams. This increased visibility helps identify and troubleshoot issues that invariably occur in production. Without having a complete understanding of every element of production, in real time, it is difficult to be able to address problems. Pinpointing the reason for a production issue is impossible to do without granular context.
With more visibility, industrial workers can quickly develop solutions and address problems head-on. For example, there may be a process that is not producing an end product that is up to spec. Data from connected-worker solutions may reveal that one specific part of the process is taking more time than it should, which may be a factor in ruining the consistency of raw materials used in the process. With that data and level of specificity at hand, more accurate conclusions and a faster path to a solution can be achieved.
With the realities that the global pandemic has brought to the industrial world, where plants have had to close because of the spread of the virus among its workforce, standard operating procedures are key to limiting the spread of COVID-19.
This is not to suggest that connected-worker technology is the only solution to limiting the spread, but it can help in many ways. Industrial workers are very much the frontline workers of the pandemic, putting their lives on the line to produce what economies and consumers need to survive. Empowering them with modern digital tools to stay safe and healthy during and after this crisis should be paramount.
With connected-worker technology, plants can adjust standard operating procedures to account for additional safety checks and metrics, such as tracking for symptoms, reminders to wash hands, and validating the wearing of personal protective equipment. New requirements, such as limiting in-person, face-to-face contact, also become easier. Because all operational data, including changes in production schedule, equipment problems, and incomplete jobs are digitally captured in real time and timestamped, interactions such as shift handovers can become nearly contact-less. Shift A can leave the premises and shift B can come in and pick up where shift A left off, with all the necessary handoff information instantly accessible and stored in the cloud.
Talent shortages and the skills gap will be a massive issue for the industrial world if we don’t take action to attract the new generation of industrial workers and leaders. The human worker 2.0 of today can power productivity and their own safety more effectively than before with connected-worker technology. For industrial companies, technology can help supercharge people who are currently employed. EP
As Regional Vice President and CPG Lead at Parsable Inc., San Francisco (parsable.com), Jaime Urquidi is responsible for growing the software company’s presence and supporting industrial companies in their digital-transformation efforts. He has more than 20 years of experience at CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies such as Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble, Mars, and Unilever.