Using the connected-worker approach for manufacturers to overcome pandemic challenges

Dec. 4, 2020
Meeting increased demand amid increased challenges.

We all want to keep workers safe. And we all know that modern, smart manufacturing approaches can create safer workplaces. But new capabilities prompt new questions, particularly as the notion of workplace safety shifts from the traditional (preventing accidents) to the current (pandemic preparedness).

Here we chat with Parsable CEO Lawrence Whittle to explore connected-worker approaches, prioritizing the human element within a factory and meeting increased demand amid increased challenges.

Take a look…

Smart Industry: With e-commerce surging in the lead up to the holidays, manufacturers face increased demand for output. But what are the biggest challenges the industry will face as a result of this, in the midst of the pandemic?

Lawrence: Keeping workers safe will absolutely be a big hurdle to overcome. The pressures of demand on the factory floor and the need for more hands on deck to meet expected output will be a disaster if safety is not at the forefront of planning for the holiday surge. One outbreak of COVID-19 within a plant immediately affects production and could have lasting impact throughout the remainder of the supply chain. It also escalates worry and fear among employees about possible infection. Meeting demand will be important, but efficient production is nothing without safety. Safety is also highly impacted by the knowledge level of how a job should be executed especially if these are new tasks for a specific worker.

Smart Industry: With COVID-19 cases rising again, how can technology keep manufacturing workers safer on the plant floor?

Lawrence: Connected-worker technology has many use cases for keeping workers safer. Connected-worker technology digitizes standard operating procedures (SOPs) to give every worker the opportunity to understand exactly how to execute with an ability to cross-check and be guided in their work as they move through different processes. Incorporating new safety measures within SOPs, like reminders to wash hands and wear masks, ensures increased safety adherence, which is critical to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

At a higher level, the worker-activity data that connected-worker technology captures as work progresses gives teams instant visibility into next steps for every process. This is important for things like encouraging contactless shift handovers; with the visibility the platform provides workers into every process, there is less need for face-to-face, human interaction in shift hand-offs.

Finally, leaders can leverage the technology to determine which workers were on the same shift and working together on certain production processes, to better identify who is most at risk of exposure should an employee test positive for COVID-19.

Smart Industry: How does the warehouse of today (and the warehouse of next year) look different?

Lawrence: The warehouse of today and of the future has to look very different in order to continue operating safely. Just like on the factory floor, strong safety adherence along with a commitment to limiting contact between warehouse workers as much as possible needs to continue to be top of mind for warehousing facilities. With the dramatic increase in e-commerce, the influx of seasonal warehouse workers, and the rise in COVID-19 cases, ensuring safety on the warehouse floor is arguably more critical in the next several weeks than it has been at any other time during the pandemic.

One compelling safety use case that transcends the pandemic is called BOS (behavioral observations), which can be deployed at scale—digitally—to every worker and thus will systematically increase cultural awareness and adherence to safety across the board.

Smart Industry: Outside of COVID-19, are there any other safety concerns the industry needs to address as production ramps up to meet the next few months of demand?

Lawrence: Absolutely. One of the challenges to ramping up production is the pressure it puts on factory workers to output more in a shorter period of time. However, safety is the bedfellow of efficiency in the industrial world—missed production steps, disregard for proper operation of machinery and more can create a dangerous situation on the plant floor. Being more efficient and producing product faster cannot come at the expense of worker safety.

Connected-worker technology, again, can support more safety in these scenarios by helping frontline workers execute work correctly, all the time. Necessary production steps and proper operation of machinery are all guidelines built directly into SOPs that every worker has access to on their mobile phone as they work. It’s a safeguard against human error or mistakes.

Smart Industry: Any advice for manufacturing leader looking to implement new digital technologies into manufacturing processes in the post-pandemic period?

Lawrence: I think the important thing to understand about connected-worker technology is that it does not require a major overhaul of equipment and systems. If a manufacturing leader is concerned about the safety of their workers this holiday season, there is still plenty of time to ramp up with worker connectivity and digital-led safety measures. Starting with safety use cases that can be rapidly deployed is also a great way to lay the foundation of digital transformation that can then extend to high-value productivity and quality use cases, building on the fact that the workers are already comfortable with the new way of digitally working.

Smart Industry: What digital technologies will be most useful as we change long-held industrial practices?

Lawrence: Technologies that power human workers will be the most useful tools in the long-run. Factories are not powered by robots—it is humans who keep factory operations running smoothly. Supporting people with technology to not only make them more effective in carrying out their work but also to give them more visibility into operations and processes as they happen, is key to more efficiency and flexibility in the industrial world. Many companies have been overwhelmed by Industry 4.0 and the automation journey. The best sensors are actually not in machines; they are the human workers. Providing modern digital tools to each and every frontline worker is the fastest time to value for digital transformation.

In terms of data, for manufacturers experiencing decreased demand or lower margins, capturing worker-activity data can reveal ways in which to be more efficient, thus cutting expenses and resources to retain more of their profits in a downturn. Similarly, with manufacturers that suddenly have to meet an increase in demand, data that gives them a view into every process will help uncover roadblocks and new efficiencies that might otherwise slow down a fast-paced production process. Without data and the visibility it provides, it will be impossible for manufacturers to pivot or adjust effectively when met with uncertain or new realities or challenges.