Digital Workplace on the Shop Floor: Long Neglected, Now More Important Than Ever (part 1)
Advances in technology mean that most office workers can now access all relevant company applications from anywhere. We communicate and collaborate with colleagues through a range of channels using powerful mobile devices that are always connected.
However, a similarly profound digital change to workplaces is happening right now and going relatively unnoticed: of the shop floors of our factories. Not that digitalization here is a completely new thing — computer-aided manufacturing and factory automation are as old as mainframe computing.
But there are three relatively new and interdependent trends that will fundamentally change the digital workplace on the shop floor. They are data integration, constant innovation and employee experience. Together they will enable new levels of productivity.
Let’s use this post to expand on the first one — data.
Trend 1: Huge data volumes need to be integrated
During the manufacturing process, increasing volumes of data can be collected directly by machines and processing equipment. Want to know about the status of the production process, performance, product quality, production cost or environmental parameters? Your machines have this information. Using it for early detection of performance deviations, impending breakdowns or defects will become second nature for most manufacturers. Data will prioritize orders and drive increased automation. And if parts or equipment aren’t available, data will help you optimize the flow of material accordingly.
However, a pre-requisite for realizing these benefits is the seamless integration of systems that previously operated in isolation from corporate IT systems. Your new technology ecosystem should also extend to your new ecosystem of suppliers and customers, but this is a tangent we’ll have to explore at another time. Back to systems …
Enough with the silos
Manufacturing execution systems capturing data from the production process (starts, stops, line speeds), are often not linked to the planning system. This results in a time-lag between actual production status and the production schedule. Quality controllers may record production defects in another separate non-conformance system. Health and safety issues are often captured in yet another system; as HR, management or corporate stakeholders want to be directly informed of any incidents and trends.
Breaking silos between core manufacturing systems (ERP, PLM, MES, etc.) creates an integrated data platform. It’s an essential first step to getting accurate, timely and trusted data to the people on the shop floor.
However, this must be supported by mobile devices to ensure that data can be both captured at source and delivered to the right people at the right time to inform better decisions.
Today, much information capture is still performed manually using paper forms or entered in individual applications. This results in significant time spent recording, re-keying, consolidating and manipulating data manually rather than using the data to inform better decisions and to drive performance improvement.
Efficiencies of the future shop floor will wholly depend on mobile devices collecting data and sending it to the company’s interconnected IT ecosystem.
Trend 2: Constant digital innovation
Manufacturers have exciting opportunities to leverage new and emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, software automation, the Internet of Things, digital twins, blockchain, augmented reality or edge computing. Success will depend on the rapid and seamless adoption of these new technologies to optimize processes and enable new business models.
Visualize with me
For example, augmented reality (AR) can help technicians carry out service or maintenance tasks more effectively by providing access to all the technical information required to complete each task. They could even do it hands-free for greater efficiency. AR allows remote collaboration with an expert to provide guidance and fault diagnosis in-situ. It can also:
- Increase employee productivity by leveraging new advances in human-robot collaboration
- Enable efficient problem-solving through sophisticated knowledge management (big data)
- Enhance training with realistic virtual scenarios
Additionally, plant managers with advanced data analytics and visualization tools, like intelligent manufacturing status reports, can identify and act upon real-time production problems faster and from anywhere. Engineers with live analysis of the production process or of connected products in-service can continually iterate product and process design for optimal performance.
Meanwhile, remote engineers can use collaboration tools to work together, co-authoring designs and sharing documents securely regardless of their locations. They can identify and retrieve relevant former designs and simulate not only the future performance of a product but also design tools, production, service and maintenance processes in parallel. Through-life costs and potential trade-offs can be identified early in the process.
Keep an eye on new trends. Today’s innovations, even if their usefulness isn’t obvious at first, often turn into tomorrow’s workplace essentials.
This is exactly the case with the business world borrowing ideas from consumer technologies, and manufacturers will only benefit from it.