With industrial facilities reopening worldwide, plant managers are looking for ways to keep workers safe and healthy. Chinese factories have banned workers from sitting face-to-face while eating lunch. In New Zealand, dockworkers work in isolated teams to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. At a Renault plant in northern France, workers eye each other through plexiglass sneeze-guards.
Such low-tech approaches are straightforward and effective. But we no longer live in a simple, low-tech world where problems can be fixed solely with the equivalent of duct tape and percussive maintenance. Modern factories are as sophisticated as any server farm or computer lab, and to keep them firing on all cylinders we’ll need high-tech solutions too.
The COVID-19 crisis will only accelerate that trend. The pandemic has already emerged as a key driver of digital transformation, with everyone from schoolchildren to CEOs having to adapt quickly to a new world of Zoom meetings and remote work. That will leave us with a new, digital-first mindset that will turbocharge digital transformation efforts in the weeks and months to come and dramatically accelerate the Industry 4.0 revolution.
It’s just as well, because to successfully reopen our factories and industrial facilities we’ll need every digital tool at our disposal. The same real-time connectivity, communication, and 360-degree awareness that helped us build smarter factories will prove vital as we work to solve the new, utterly modern problem of running safe, efficient facilities at a time when a single sneeze could knock out half our workforce.
The Connected Workplace
Thanks to IoT and Industry 4.0 technologies, factories are connected workspaces, with every machine a potential data source. That’s allowing us to model, optimize, and automate workflows, respond nimbly to problems, and transform the efficiency and reliability of our facilities.
The digitization of industry has allowed some facilities to ride out the pandemic relatively easily, because automated and digitized plants don’t need as much human attention. China’s silicon-chip factories were barely shaken by the crisis, for instance, because their sterile spaces require few human workers other than a handful of engineers to monitor control panels.
Other manufacturers are leveraging connectivity to reduce the need for on-site customer visits. Nano-electronics specialist P2i uses machine learning to image products as they move through production lines, allowing buyers to conduct quality-control checks remotely. Manufacturing equipment can be coordinated remotely, too, so P2i’s engineers can correct errors or fine-tune processes without leaving their homes.
People Need Connectivity Too
It’s easy to see why plants are embracing automation — after all, robots never cough, sneeze, or call in sick. But lights-out manufacturing doesn’t work for everyone, and most factories will still need human workers. We need to think not just about how connectivity can boost automation, but also about how digital tools can help humans work more safely and effectively.
That means using Industry 4.0 technologies and digital transformation to connect and manage people, not just machines. Just as contact tracing is driving national responses to COVID-19, so will industrial operators need to digitally track people moving through their facilities, then leverage that data to keep people working safely — perhaps even by using AI tools to model the flow of workers and redirect or reassign crews in real time.
Such technologies are already being developed. In China, factories now use government tools derived from mobile payment apps to track workers’ medical records and travel history. Even without government-sponsored tools, it’s possible to use RFID identifiers or GPS and Bluetooth apps to stay aware of workers’ movements, monitor the equipment they use, and track their interactions with co-workers.
More Than Just Contact Tracing
Such tools can help workers abide by social distancing rules, and allow managers to spot physical or procedural bottlenecks that could become viral transmission hotspots. By layering in additional data — from fever-spotting thermal cameras, say, or self-reported health indicators — companies can ensure employees are fit to work, and break chains of transmission before they explode into major outbreaks.
Connected tools also allow workers to communicate with managers and one another, allowing them to access guidance and information, report concerns, and share information and resources. That can increase compliance with safety rules, while also boosting productivity during chaotic times.
Consider German motor-maker Ebm-papst, which recently introduced a 15-minute gap between shifts, reducing transmission risk by ensuring workers from different shifts never come face-to-face — but also making it impossible to have face-to-face handovers between shifts. The solution? Moving key conversations online, with mobile chat, email, and other tools to ensure workers are properly briefed and ready to work when their shift begins.
Technology Breeds Trust
Tech solutions bring another big benefit: they’re verifiable. With the US government largely MIA, and fewer OHSA inspectors active than at any time since the 1970s, having a clear and transparent record of worker movements and sanitation procedures undertaken to prevent viral transmission can be vitally important.
At Boeing’s newly reopened factories in Washington and Pennsylvania, for instance, workers recently invoked union stop-work rules to shut down assembly lines over concerns that workspaces used by a sick employee hadn’t been properly sanitized.
Proper digital tracking — connecting the sick employee, the cleanup crew, and the equipment itself — could have prevented that stoppage by allowing both workers and managers to confirm for themselves that cleanup crews had disinfected every single space or tool used by a sick worker. In the long run, that’s better for workplace safety, better for morale, and better for productivity.
The Future of Workplace Safety
Many manufacturers still think about health and safety in terms of minimizing lost-time accidents and regulatory violations. In the coronavirus era, however, the stakes are far higher. Without proper precautions, plants could face outbreaks that will cost lives and force facility-wide or even industry-wide shutdowns.
To keep workers safe and factories running, we need to look beyond sneeze-guards and social distancing rules. We need digital tools that can keep employees apart without impeding their ability to work together, and provide verifiable tracing of the safety and cleanliness of shared spaces and equipment.
That’s a solvable problem, but only if we make full use of every tool at our disposal. To emerge from this pandemic, we’ll need to leverage everything we’ve learned in recent years about designing and running smart, connected industrial facilities.
About The Author
Chris Turlica is CEO of MaintainX. MaintainX helps track eactive maintenance, preventive maintenance, and control the daily operations of businesses such as safety inspections, quality inspections, and operating checklists – all with a digital audit trail.