Even with AI and advanced technologies, direct labor is still the backbone of the manufacturing industry. Here is why.
By: Glenn Graney, QAD – Director, Industrial and High Tech
Most recently and unfortunately for all of us, the letter “V” in most peoples’ minds, stands for “virus.” The pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of global culture and global infrastructure. For the manufacturing community, “vulnerability” and “vital” are two more “V” words that have been brought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite popular images of lights-out automated manufacturing done by robots and high-speed automation lines, the truth is that the majority of manufacturing is still dependent on a direct labor force. Human beings who show up every day at plants worldwide and punch the clock are still the backbone of the products that go out the door. These individuals are a vital part of making and delivering everything from food processing to jet engines.
What the pandemic has shown is how vulnerable that labor workforce is. The manufacturing community has long talked about the impending skills gap associated with retiring machine operators leaving without having clear successors to whom they can pass along their knowledge and expertise. The virus has expanded that concern to include nearly every role within the manufacturing facility.
The vulnerability of the manufacturing labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic is exasperating in several ways. Certainly, the direct loss of labor due to illness is a concern. There are also labor hours lost to exposure and required quarantine. Unpredictable loss of personnel and social distancing requirements impact the job at hand and the ability to train and transfer knowledge about assigned tasks. A workforce with less direct experience in assigned tasks results in a reduction in production rates and can also result in quality issues.
Many manufacturers have already had to adjust workflows and physical operator line-side assignments to protect their vital workforce. The dynamics of a vulnerable workforce no longer align with an employee working at the same machine/station or on the same line for decades. Shop floor personnel must become generalists who can move fluidly from role to role performing a range of different jobs. This requires breaking the work into quickly learned, manageable activities and the delivery of contextual information. Information systems must quickly evolve to compensate for the lack of long-tail training and experience.
The desired solution would consist of two essential functional elements. First would be a framework for defining the shop floor work instructions. This would include a systemic process for identifying the required information at the item ID or work center ID level. Historically the definition of these guides can take place in a PLM, ERP, QMS or even in an MES. In most cases, manufacturing engineers have created detailed instructions, but the transfer to the point of action has not always been straightforward.
The second essential element is the system that enables the actual delivery of that information to the shop floor at the time of production. Depending on the product, many manufacturing environments still rely on paper travelers and a fair amount of line-side manual reference and review. Systems that can deliver shop floor work instructions that are in context and designed to allow shop floor generalists to fulfill the tasks are real differentiators in the current world of the vital and vulnerable workforce. Many work environments deliver on this promise by providing line-side instructions via MES or HMI/SCADA solutions. These instructions are backed by integral control plans and process documentation or via data interfaces to external systems. The majority of manufacturers still have work to do to meet the challenge of effectively delivering the instructions to the plant floor.
For many manufacturers, this requirement has stimulated renewed interest in augmented reality solutions. A visual approach shows great promise as a way to compensate for the prevailing inexperience of the shop floor workforce and the increasing requirement to support multilingual workers.
All of us are eager for the post-pandemic era. The disruption of 2020 has highlighted both the vital role and the vulnerability of the manufacturing labor force. The transition to a contextually directed workforce must continue to evolve to meet the reality of modern manufacturing.
Glenn Graney is a proven business leader with 35-years of impactful experience driving business growth and managing cost-focused simplification in manufacturing and utility environments. He brings broad business acumen across management, sales, marketing, and product management leadership. Glenn is repeatedly recognized for excellence, innovation and leadership in critical roles.