Now, just how many people can we move off the floor?
This past year was most unusual, distracting and challenging, and many of those distractions and challenges appear they will remain with us well into the first half of the year. As industry begins to focus on post-pandemic planning, however, much has been learned over the past year that can and is being applied to planning for the future.
Possibly the most significant thing learned is technology can – and does – work! A generation of manufacturing and technology leaders knew little of platforms such as Zoom, WebEx, etc. Through baptism by fire, we have become believers in virtual interaction, its effectiveness and value. Equally significant is the realization that for many business functions, including those in manufacturing, remote working – aka working from home – works and offers much more flexibility than the traditional structured workplace.
Manufacturers have by necessity reconfigured shop floors to accommodate social distancing, cleaning protocols, and all that has gone with the Covid pandemic. Adding space between production lines can accommodate social distancing. But while effective, it has proven costly. Splitting shifts is another tactic. Employees may be willing today to change schedules to keep a job; however, it is not ideal in the long term. Meanwhile, in the office environment social distancing is accomplished via interactive technology. Further, many claim the efficiency and flexibility from employees working remotely and communicating virtually has been significantly better than they imagined. The office environment success and flexibility from harnessing virtual communication technology has not gone unnoticed by the manufacturing manager.
Over the past couple months, I have had many conversations with colleagues in our industry and other manufacturing fields about how to apply the lessons learned as we attempt to return to “normal,” or as a “new normal” emerges. Much of the conversation has focused not on how to reduce headcount and therefore costs, but instead on how to reduce the “traffic” and “parking” on the shop floor via harnessing virtual interaction technology to increase efficiency and reduce process time. One of the observations I keep hearing is that with fewer people congregating on the shop floor at the same time, product seems to move faster through work cells and from process to process.
Further discussion has centered on rethinking manufacturing processes: separating the “hard” tasks of manufacturing, which require an onsite human operating a piece of equipment and touching product, from the “soft” tasks, which are often monitoring processes, verifying and validating product, and generating documentation. On a traditional shop floor these tasks take place side-by-side by different employees with different skill sets.
The thought is if those responsible for the “soft” tasks do them remotely, it will reduce shop-floor traffic. Less traffic means fewer distractions and greater flexibility, and there is less opportunity a “parking lot” will develop as people chit-chat, reducing throughput and efficiency. Wherever traffic is, you frequently end up with an area filled with inert employees and products.
Performing those “soft” tasks virtually, however, requires more than just a Zoom account. And that’s where creative process engineers are working to harness sensors, test and measurement equipment and basic automation with the anticipation that a reasonable happy medium can be achieved.
For years it has been possible to monitor equipment such as drill machines remotely. Likewise, computer-driven CMM equipment can be operated offsite. Ditto for verification documentation, such as a FAI. Employees who handle these tasks from home or in a cubicle off the shop floor will continue to be the norm. But much of the other tasks in manufacturing are more challenging.
High-volume manufacturing offers some opportunity to lean out the shop-floor traffic as well. More than a few process engineers are looking at how to reduce the number of people in a work cell by locating one or a few off the shop floor, while they still monitor the process or line. Staggering work-cell schedules, not by multiples of shifts but by minutes, can also separate setup from operators from test and verification, collectively reducing shop-floor traffic.
High-mix, low-volume manufacturing environments have the greatest challenge to deploying virtual interactive technology to reduce shop-floor traffic. And more opportunities exist. Creating data and tooling packages can be done remotely, as can much of the end verification and validation data creation. Staging work through a network of onsite and offsite staff – implemented thoughtfully – can increase flexibility and throughput and reduce traffic.
Finally, for those who thought Industry 4.0 was interesting, much of the past year has provided validation that the technologies are in place and work well. Many colleagues are moving feverishly to take advantage of the available tools now that employees and managers – many who have never imagined utilizing such technology – are experiencing their power and convenience on a personal and professional level.