Manufacturers are facing numerous challenges, with everything from global supply issues to a lack of available skilled workers which is having a negative impact on growth and financial security. Recent analysis has found that by 2030, more than 85 million jobs could go unfilled because there aren’t enough skilled people to take them, resulting in an $8.5 trillion talent shortage.
To overcome these challenges, manufacturers are beginning to prioritise
Digitalisation and a ‘connected’ workforce to avoid costly operational disruptions that impact OEE on the factory floor, and which have a knock-on effect throughout the value chain. By digitising manufacturer shopfloor processes, manufacturers can make more insights available to shopfloor workers through leveraging data from siloed functions and empower their employees to make smarter manufacturing decisions. It is now possible for the entire manufacturing workforce to stay in touch with one another in real time, with the benefits from this connectedness including increased visibility of operations, boosted productivity, and improved worker safety.
From paper-driven processes to a connected workforce
Because rigid departmental divisions have long been the industry operating norm, breaking down these siloes remains a challenge despite the need for better data collection and information sharing being clearer than ever before. Manual, paper-driven processes have no place in the modern factory and by implementing a connected worker programme paper becomes obsolete, as well as legacy practices such as scanning and duplicate data entry. Whether it’s locating equipment, parts, tools or instructions, operators can get what they need on demand via a simple interface. This solution enables a connected worker strategy that improves performance across production, maintenance and inspection operations.
Moreover, digital work instructions are more sustainable and good for the environment because they produce less waste. With AR-based digital work instructions, workers can independently resolve issues and complete their work accurately and correctly.
Using mobile devices and automation, workers can replace their reliance on non-standardised processes and knowledge with real-time data and standardised ways of working.
Historically, manufacturers have invested heavily in automating their machinery, including using the data from IoT sensors to drive efficiency, but companies that do not fully leverage digitalisation and continue to rely on paper-based, manual processes are going to struggle to get the maximum value they can from these investments.
However, while connected worker platforms can provide numerous benefits, they are not a one-size-fits-all solution. To be truly successful, these rollouts need to be approached with a people-focused strategy that embraces the unique needs and challenges of the workforce.
Empowering a connected workforce with digitalisation
Having the ability to change manufacturing processes on a pivot using guidance from shopfloor data is a key advantage of digitalisation, and having a connected workforce on the shopfloor that has access to data ensures operational agility and greater productivity as the workforce can react to immediate changes, as they happen. This can now be achieved using mobile-first applications that can be easily accessed from the shop floor, and workflows that are tailored to the meet specific needs of the user.
By establishing digital connections between systems, processes, and teams, and more recently, the digitalised knowledge, the entire company can see and act on the same data in their decision-making resulting in increased operational visibility and greater factory efficiency. Data can be used to identify trends, scale efficiencies, and eliminate common or recurring issues.
In a nutshell, a connected worker platform is a software solution that helps the operational workforce to become more efficient and productive using digital technology, but not separated from their physical work location. With a connected worker programme, manufacturing operators get real-time mobile access to traditionally disparate data, sensors, alerts, and workflows – as well as maintenance history, current work orders, manufacturers’ schematics and best practices. This ensures better data integrity, smoother operations, and dramatically reduced administration costs.
One key benefit of this approach is the ability to accumulate and digitise the industry knowledge and skills gained from daily operations in the form of a valuable knowledge base. This rich knowledge repository can be used to train specialised AI models for seamless collaboration between humans and AI in manufacturing operations. As a factory or production floor manager, imagine being able to ask questions like, “Show me the operations patterns across all functional areas of my plant that lead to a decrease in productivity by more than 10% over the past 7 days”, and getting a natural language answer complete with real data and charts auto-generated in real-time by the AI assistant as part of the connected worker solution.
Connected workers are enabled with their environment by technologies like data analytics, AI, AR/VR, IoT device and cloud computing. This enables them to make informed decisions, collaborate easily, and act faster. On the shop floor, a frontline worker can use digital tools such as wearables, IoT sensors, AR devices, or mobile apps, with real-time insights on key operational metrics. Visual dashboards can also be used for data analysis, smart devices for instant communication, or digital platforms for real-time tracking and reporting.
Improved productivity through with real-time decision making
Operating a ‘connected worker’ programme has been shown to increase the productivity of a manufacturing operation by more than 20% on average through the digitalisation of manufacturing processes and real-time access to critical information. By enabling much more agile decision making, a connected workforce also empowers businesses to transform processes such as downtime management and final product quality inspection that span different departments.
An example of the benefits achieved by implementing digitalisation and a ‘connected worker’ programme is best illustrated by the achievements of an international major food and beverage packaging company. The company was challenged with overall productivity issues rooted in paper-based processes. The solution enabled the client to deploy mobile apps, automate data collection, utilise analytics and reporting, and swiftly implement corrective actions to enhance plant performance. As a result, the packaging company has improved OEE and now has the capability to gather deep insights from real-time data and has also achieved a 25% decrease in scrap for improved sustainability.
The ideal platform for connected workers is one that bridges the gap between man and machine. You are not just connecting factory workers to other teams and to one another. You are also connecting them to live machine information, historical data, maintenance requests, and more, that empowers the employee in their daily work, with the new processes becoming more habitual and less intrusive.
However, a successful deployment comes with its share of challenges, such as the need for upskilling workers, data security considerations, and potential resistance to change. It’s upon manufacturers and their digital implementation partners to navigate this transition thoughtfully and strategically, creating an all-stakeholder buy-in, aligning the journey with their unique operational context and workforce capabilities as well as providing alternative career options through upskilling and reskilling.
Your connected workforce platform should include the right technology for the right needs, providing the visibility you need to make informed decisions and unify your workforce effectively. The dawn of the connected worker era brings transformative potential to manufacturing. With digital tools, real-time data access, and the advent of pervasive AI, these frontline workers are set to redefine manufacturing workflows including production operations, quality control, safety, collaboration, and decision making.
Dr Asif Rana, President, Nexus Connected Worker at Hexagon.