May the force be with you, manufacturers: Emerging workforce challenges, trends and winning strategies in today’s remote work age

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This post is brought by Plataine, the leading provider of Industrial IoT and AI-based manufacturing optimization software. Learn more or get the latest guide on How Smart your Factory Really Is.

Even the most pessimistic predictions promise that eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic will be over. Still, we all know that some changes we now experience will stick around, which is not necessarily a bad thing. 

Other changes are expected to significantly impact industries even if they on their own will eventually vanish. In the manufacturing industry, some of what happens today is bound to leave a significant mark. 

Many manufacturers were fast to realize that as early as in March, when the pandemic was still relatively new, more than 50% of manufacturers stated that specific operational changes will occur.

The challenges manufacturers encounter during these times take on many forms. Supply chain disruptions resulted in the delayed and canceled arrival of parts and materials. Demand instability caused some products to become almost irrelevant, while others sold out repeatedly. Social distancing regulations changed the production floor layout and so forth.  

The long-term effect of these challenges varies. Some will fade over time, as we will get used to living alongside the virus or manage to cure it. Others will stick around for much longer and cause an accelerated and unpredictable evolution in the manufacturing industry. Finally, some challenges lead to new strategies that will stick along as they create an opportunity for companies and prevail for that reason.

In this article, I will focus on changes related to the professional manufacturing workforce that will probably stick around. 

Hiring top talent or managing a production floor workforce has always been a challenge, but current conditions force manufacturers to get even more creative and resourceful. Here are some of the main trends and changes that are becoming an integral part of the manufacturing world and the strategies to help businesses embrace them: 

  • Factory floor visibility: Social distancing restrictions limit staff members’ ability to approach one another. To solve this issue, manufacturers are proactively looking to empower employees and managers with visibility tools to keep the team updated on the current inventory status, machine availability levels, production progress, and more. Robust visibility technologies can keep everyone on the same page, alert on issues, help with predictions and basically fill the gaps of communication limitations. Such manufacturing optimization technologies are becoming the standard regardless of the Corona crisis, but the past months have continued to fasten their enrollment among manufacturers.

  • Remote work: Almost every field is currently dealing with the transition to remote work. Some employees are quarantined while others stay at home to reduce the number of people present on the factory floor. As time goes by, we learn that there are clear advantages to working from home for both employees and companies. Nevertheless, remote work requires different work methods and tools, such as: IIoT technology and sensors that remotely monitor and track machines and assets; communication software like video conferencing, AR/VR that make remote conversations more human and accurate; e-learning and training platforms; dashboards to update workers on any schedule or plan changes, and more.  

Clearly, when things are back to normal, it will still make sense to allow remote work to some extent and in specific cases. Related strategies and technologies that are being currently enrolled due to today’s reality will certainly not go to waste later on. Industry 4.0 technologies allow workers to operate remotely efficiently, by keeping them updated on production progress and issues on the factory floor in real-time. These technologies help to make data-driven decisions based on visibility and smart predictions; foresee unplanned demand changes and more. All this could be done without being physically present on the shop floor or anywhere else in the site.

Related here, 5G connectivity will help manufacturers reach new heights, as connectivity will become so fast and will allow remote operation of machinery with zero latency. Even before 5G, technologies that empower ‘zero- latency connectivity capabilities’ for remote teleoperations support the concept of cobots that allow shop floor workers to operate field functions remotely. Such technologies were not developed just to support manufacturers, but are needed to operate autonomous vehicles, digital-health applications and more. 

Should existing shop floor employees be worried that they are about to be replaced? Absolutely not. In this article you can read more on how industry 4.0 is expected to impact shop floor workforce in the long run

  • Demand management: The true meaning of unstable demand is the inability to predict the necessary workforce, machinery, materials and more, for the near future. Unexpectedly low demand is problematic as it leaves manufacturers with unused, expensive materials which impact financials and in some cases may expire and go to waste. Unexpected strength in demand is not less challenging. It requires an immediate shift in the assigned workforce while staying compliant with social distancing regulations, as well as dealing with employee shortage due to sickness and quarantines. One solution is to use e-learning / remote training solutions. These can help overcome any skill gaps and train shop floor workers for additional tasks to make them more self-sufficient and increase productivity. For instance, AR/VR technologies help workers deal with complex manufacturing assembly – a task that is a demanding challenge for inexperienced employees.   
  • Enhanced hygiene: In the past year, we’ve learned all about the importance of maintaining a high level of personal hygiene. That is true even without the threat of a global outbreak. According to studies, a virus can infect up to 60% of employees within 24 hours. History shows that past pandemic crisis resulted in new standards of hygiene and helped humans win over diseases. We didn’t always have the habit of washing hands on specific occasions. Since current hygiene routines are not only effective in fighting Covid19, but are also decreasing the impact of “regular” viruses or winter disease, they will probably stick as manufacturers will clearly see the relation between enhanced hygiene strategies and healthy functioning workforce. Employees will probably be asked to pay attention to proper social distancing practices, personal protective equipment, personal sanitation practices, and more, long after Covid19 crisis is over. 
  • Automation: In 2018, it was predicted that machines would take over most work tasks by 2025, and while this isn’t bad news as humans will focus on other, less repetitive tasks, we can safely assume that the COVID-19 pandemic will only accelerate this prediction. Many manual labors can be automated, freeing up time, space, and staff while minimizing human error. The need for automated tasks is more substantial now that workforce and supply chain challenges are more prominent. Again here, Industry 4.0 tech will serve to automate production, compliance and audit, administrative work, quality assurance, and so forth, by mixing IIoT and AI capabilities.  
  • Artificial Intelligence: Regarding the previous, AI is not a new trend, but it is currently used to make specific data-based predictions. Overall, AI in manufacturing is expected to reach a market value of $16.7 billion by 2026. AI has many use cases, and the ability to assist your workforce to take optimal decisions. Optimization and maintenance solutions are led by intelligent predictions and help make better decisions that save a lot of time and money. We believe that many manufacturers who discover AI will and embrace it for the long run. If you love being led by examples, think about an optimal material selection for a work order or the timing for machine maintenance. In the later example, that’s a decision that should calculate the meaning of shutting off the workstation, the current status of the machine, the impact on other stations that are dependent on this one and so forth. While having people on the ground to check all this can provide an answer, it’s known to be relatively inefficient and more sensitive to mistakes, compared to using AI based solutions for that. When having people on the ground is a challenge on its own, implementing AI is bound to be accelerated. 

 

Learn from experience: Remote work examples  

We recently announced that Alestis Aerospace, a top aerostructures provider that supports some of the largest aerospace suppliers and OEMs, chose Plataine’s IIoT manufacturing optimization solution. The entire implementation process and staff training was done remotely and successfully while managing to address the company’s urgent needs and COVID-19 restrictions. Plataine’s solution will automate Alestis’ production workflow and optimize cut-planning processes, delivering significant time savings and improved material yield, especially crucial in challenging times of uncertain supply of raw materials and cost pressures

Another example relates to Plataine’s Production Scheduler Application, that offers manufacturers the ability to keep control under extremely uncertain conditions. Unpredictable changes are managed in real-time on the shop floor. With remote monitoring tools, businesses can track their progress, compare it to the company’s KPIs, and optimize accordingly. For instance, they can instantly predict the impact of missing workforce (due to sudden quarantine) on the actual production. 

Summary 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted many of the changes and transformations the world was already going through. Digital transformations did not start during the outbreak, but they have matured more quickly. Work floor visibility, troubleshooting capabilities, training methodologies, and many other factors are already being managed differently, and many changes are likely to remain as they just make sense. 

The solutions manufacturers onboard or expand right now out of emergency or necessity will change the way industrial businesses and production teams think and behave. Many COVID19 strategies will just become the new standard for manufacturing. A good will come out of this, at the end.

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