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Using wireless sensors to maintain social distancing on the factory floor

May 27, 2020

Manufacturers require more than masks. 

Swift Sensors' Ray Almgren

Protecting workers' health and safety is key to getting manufacturing back online. As supply chains restart and stay-at-home rules ease, factories are starting to reopen. But production lines and factory floors look quite different from before the pandemic. 

Now, plants must give workers enough space to prevent the spread of viral particles. They should also limit employees’ movement inside the plant to reduce the likelihood of an outbreak. These new practices require training, focus, and tools to reinforce new work habits. 

A network of remote IoT sensors can help industrial manufacturers protect workers on the job. Here are a few examples of what’s being done already and what more sensors can do.

Maintaining physical distance inside the plant

US automakers are gradually restarting production lines after nearly two months of downtime. In auto plants and other factories, 6 feet of space between workers may not always be possible. 

Manufacturers are trying low- and high-tech solutions to the physical distancing problem. Many have adjusted to one or two large shifts to more shifts with fewer workers per shift. Some automakers have installed clear partitions on production lines, like those now protecting grocery store cashiers. Ford has tested RFID-enabled Bluetooth wristbands that buzz when workers are too close to each other.

IoT tools can help as well. For example, wireless door, motion and activity detection sensors can send alerts when new people enter an occupied work space. If there’s no room, they can be redirected quickly to another location. 

This type of alert can help plants follow the new best practice of ensuring extra space around key personnel on-site. Ohio’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership recommends extra protection for employees whose absence would stop production. They suggest this protection for workers like “boiler operators, wastewater treatment engineers, lead electricians, [and] maintenance.”

Wireless door sensors can also help plants maintain security and physical distancing at the same time. More entrances and exits can stop people from clustering in doorways during shift changes. That can make access control more difficult. However, a network of door sensors and remote cameras can guard against unauthorized visitors.

Zoning facilities to limit access 

We know that the coronavirus can spread quickly indoors. The more people move around inside a building, the more opportunities they have to spread it or pick it up. That’s why another new best practice for industrial manufacturing is facility zoning. For example, some agricultural equipment makers have detailed plans for how workers should move through their plants. Their goal is to quickly isolate and trace any cases of COVID-19 among workers.

In a zoned facility, workers stay in the areas where they’re authorized to be. That’s usually going to be their work stations and the nearest break rooms and restrooms. Equipment should stay in its zone, too, because the virus can live so long on surfaces. 

Activity detection monitors can alert managers when employees are in an off-limits zone. Paired with remote cameras, they can help factories enforce new zoning policies that protect worker safety.

An IoT sensor network can do more than generate real-time safety alerts. It can also create reports that show managers where and when workers aren’t keeping a safe distance. 

Monitoring equipment function and condition remotely 

Plants that add remote equipment sensors create a safer, more efficient workplace. Both remote vibration sensors and remote temperature sensors can support physical distancing in three key ways. 

1. Remote equipment sensors can help reduce the number of people on-site. The benefit here is twofold. Managers can see real-time equipment function and condition in real time from home. And when sensors record equipment readings, there’s no need for an on-site employee to do so. 

2. Remote temperature and vibration sensors can alert managers when equipment operates out of range. This can reduce failures and prevent people moving in and out of equipment areas for reactive maintenance. It also lets managers schedule maintenance at the best times for physical distancing.

3. When sensor data prevents unplanned downtime, plants can avoid disruptions that cause distancing failures. For example, if a line suddenly shuts down, workers might gather in other parts of the facility. Or they might crowd through main exits if supplemental exits are closed between shift changes. 

Giving workers space to stay safe on the job is crucial to restarting production and keeping it on track. Physical distancing is one of many new practices that plants must adopt to stay viable and competitive.

Fighting the coronavirus requires using all the tools we have to keep workers and communities safe. We think industrial wireless sensors belong in that toolkit.

Ray Almgren is COO of Swift Sensors