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How to improve factory maintenance—and retain frontline workers

April 18, 2024
Outdated legacy maintenance and inspection processes that these frontline workers must deal with are hurting companies.

Many business experts assume that the digital revolution is complete. In their view, every business has transferred their operations to the cloud. But I know from my experience that this is far from reality and that this situation affects the quality of our products—not to mention our frontline workers’ lives.

Most office workers usually spend their days toggling between half a dozen productivity apps. However, after doing a lot of research on manufacturing processes at many different businesses, I've learned that factory operations on the ground have not yet adapted to this new paradigm.

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While every micro-interaction in a white-collar office is logged, indexed, and searchable across many platforms, many manufacturers today still work more casually, with important decisions relegated to written notes. It is unclear why frontline workers—the people tasked with keeping our supply chain afloat—have not received the benefits of their office-bound counterparts.

Simply put: he outdated legacy maintenance and inspection processes that these frontline workers must deal with are hurting companies. The losses of this rigid approach are immeasurable. Maintenance and inspection processes that rely on paper inevitably increase human errors and result in equipment failure, lost production, wasted labor costs, quality issues, lower revenues, a rise in worker safety incidents, and, ultimately, decreased customer satisfaction.

According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, U.S. discrete manufacturing industries spend an average of $222 billion a year on maintenance costs, with nearly half of this amount coming from lost sales. To modernize maintenance, the pen-and-paper approach needs replacement with digital tools that will enable frontline workers to succeed.

Frontline work is hindered by the paper-based workplace

One key reason why it’s essential to digitize maintenance, inspection forms, and checklists more than ever is this—downtime.

The price of unplanned downtime has increased by 50% in the past few years, an unfortunate consequence of runaway inflation and higher-capacity production lines. Last year, industrial companies in the Fortune Global 500 were projected to have lost upwards of $1.5 trillion due to unplanned downtime, a number that averages out to 11% of each company’s revenue.

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The solution is deteriorating. For consumer goods that sell quickly, losing just a single hour of production now costs around $39,000. For automotive plants, that cost is $2 million. And while manufacturers have fewer unexpected shutdowns than they did two years ago—20 on average, down from 26—these shutdowns are taking significantly longer to recover from.

This implies that manufacturers have very little margin for error: a single inaccurate form can trigger a cascade of problems that shutters operations for hours (or longer) as workers scramble to fix things and resume normal activities.
And this reduced productivity is not even the worst consequence of using pen-and-paper for maintenance processes. A much more serious consequence of what I've termed elsewhere the frontline disconnect—the weak communication between frontline and office workers—is an increased likelihood of workplace accidents and fatalities.

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The statistics are alarming: the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the number of fatal workplace injuries in the U.S. increased by 8.9% in just one year, from 2020 to 2021, to a total of 5,190. According to a study from NIST shows that 134.9 on-the-job injuries at manufacturing plants can be attributed to reactive maintenance. This suggests that these terrible accidents could probably have been prevented with better maintenance and inspection practices.

Benefits of preventive maintenance for improved business outcomes

These terrible outcomes—which are widespread in manufacturing—are not only detrimental to business. They are harmful to workers.

In other words: They hurt the business because they hurt the workers. In Beekeeper’s Frontline Workforce Pulse Report, we identified high levels of stress and feelings of unsafety among top reasons that lead to frontline worker dissatisfaction. When turnover is at an all-time high and recruitment has never been more challenging, worker attrition is something most businesses cannot afford.

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With digital inspection tools, all of this can be prevented. Assignments can be routed automatically to the correct technicians who can do the job, giving them all the data they need to schedule inspections and start working.

Meanwhile, managers are informed and can approve repairs when needed. This type of proactive maintenance—which can happen before and after shifts—helps prevent downtime, while also helping new employees fit into overall production systems more effectively.

For safety purposes, frontline success systems can help schedule and perform regular safety audits, ensuring that the production materials and potentially hazardous chemicals are used and stored properly.

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When issues arise—as they inevitably will—these can be promptly flagged and prioritized for repair. And because all these processes are digitized, managers can get a high-level view of crucial analytics on things like maintenance backlogs and time-to-repair, aiding in personnel decisions.

Digital HR tools are essential for modern office work, but they are still missing in frontline work. This needs to change—if the workplace innovations of the last decade are not shared equally, between both office workers and frontline workers—manufacturers will continue to face disruptions, injuries, and worse.

About the Author

Cristian Grossmann

Cristian Grossmann is CEO and co-founder of Beekeeper, which works to solve the disconnect between frontline workers and their managers in retail, hospitality, manufacturing, and construction. A former frontline worker, Grossmann understands firsthand the technology required to make the frontline workforce more effective. Prior to founding Beekeeper, he worked on high-profile international projects in the field of IT strategy for the financial and public sectors for Accenture.