How to Make Remote Work in Manufacturing a Reality
COVID-19 hit upon a major pain point separating the manufacturing industry from other industries. As a majority of U.S. employees shifted to working from home, many manufacturing operations were simply shut down — or were forced to operate with minimal staff on the shop floor.
A growing number of organizations are considering remote work as a permanent solution after the pandemic as well, because it offers benefits including productivity advantages and can also help attract talent. Given the available communication and performance management technologies already available in most industries, the switch from office to remote work has been relatively seamless.
However, in contrast to digital-first industries, the physical nature of the manufacturing industry has made the switch from in-person to remote a challenge. The industry must adopt remote connectivity solutions in order to enable remote work while retaining and improving production efficiency.
The State of Remote Work
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, remote work was on the rise when companies started to understand that remote employees were often cheaper and happier. But in light of the quarantine measures, the world has embraced remote work in a way that, while perhaps inevitable, was likely still years away. Survey data from Gallup shows that in April 2021, more than 60% of people were working remotely all or part of the time. Today that number remains high at 56%.
In April of 2020, just 41% of manufacturing employees were able to telework, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just 46% of the industry has enabled remote monitoring processes to ensure visibility of production when not at the plant.
This problem is even more troubling when we consider that a majority of employees are seeking remote work, and the manufacturing industry has had difficulty hiring skilled workers. While demand for labor increases, the skills gap in manufacturing may leave approximately 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028 — a potential economic impact of $2.5 trillion. This compounds the problem, because as more people join the workforce, they will be less incentivized to join an industry that is averse to remote work.
How Manufacturers Can Enable Remote Work
The good news is that the industry is actively working to solve this problem. More solutions than ever before are being developed and implemented to tackle this challenge, and manufacturing leaders are open to exploring these solutions.
There are a few specific challenges that manufacturing leaders must address as they free their workforce from the office and shop floor.
First, they must monitor the status of production. It’s a reassurance to walk the shop floor and see all machines humming away productively, manned by skilled operators who are on top of part counts and ensuring quality specs are met.
The problem is, if you remove the manager from the shop floor, they have little to no insight into the status of production. Not only are manually filed reports delayed and inaccurate, but they force manufacturing leaders to be on-site, spending more of their time observing and analyzing what is going on, rather than making decisions.
To make the shift to remotely monitor production, machine and operator data needs to be collected and contextualized in real-time so managers can get insights on production no matter their location.
Second, they must analyze the health of equipment. The old phrase “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is not a very efficient strategy — at least not for a world-class maintenance team.
Manufacturers will need to adopt both a culture and technology infrastructure to support the transition to a largely remote workforce.
Instead, enabling your equipment providers and service teams with machine condition data helps to diagnose and resolve machine issues faster, before they happen or even remotely. With real-time machine data, manufacturers gain insight into equipment health and conditions to get early warning signs of potential equipment failures and elevated risk areas that lead to downtimes.
Third, they must collaborate in real-time and provide autonomy to onsite workers. Providing fewer onsite workers with the tools and information they need to make decisions is far more efficient than having the complete workforce onsite simply for the sake of communicating information.
Remote work highlights the importance of real-time, automated communication and notifications to ensure the right information is in the hands of the right person at the right time.
For manufacturers, this means leveraging real-time production data to drive automated notifications. This can be as simple as alerting an operator when a machine goes down, or as advanced as predictively alerting a maintenance supervisor of an impending machine tool failure and automatically generating the work order in a computerized maintenance management system.
As manufacturers progress in their data maturity and remote work compatibility, they will be able to enable lights-out factories driven by automation, saving the highest value tasks for onsite production employees.
Manufacturing’s Bright Future
This unprecedented time we are in will end soon, but the trend of remote work is only going to continue. The solutions exist; it’s simply a matter of manufacturers adopting both a culture and technology infrastructure to support the transition to a largely remote workforce.
Here are a few takeaways for manufacturing leaders who are beginning to blaze a trail towards remote work for their organizations:
Skills: Identify whose skills translate the best to scalable remote work. Certain skill sets make some roles more conducive to performing digitally.
Leaders must ask themselves: Who must work inside the factory? Conversely, who does a job that could or should be performed remotely? The answers to these questions aren’t simple or obvious. Many manufacturers are broadening the skillsets of onsite teams to create more generalists. Populating the factory floor with people who, with the right guidance, can tackle many different jobs can help resolve a much wider range of issues.
Conversely, they should also find ways to utilize specialists remotely. Whether it’s reliability, quality, engineering or other subject-matter experts, the specialized focus of their work makes it more conducive to performing digitally. Having these professionals offsite also lets them remotely serve multiple factories and cross-pollinate across the enterprise.
Data: The virtual shift will work only if the infrastructure for data collection, analytics and remote collaboration tools is up to par.
Training: Training and ongoing sharing of best practices are paramount for the success of remote collaboration.
The goods produced may remain physical, but the nature in which they are being produced will continue to be supported by digital methodologies, including remote work, that enable people to focus on only the highest value tasks while automating low-value production activities.
This piece was originally published in the World Economic Forum.