Remote factories: The next frontier of remote work


Remote work has become the standard for office workers. Is it possible to do this with factories? Sort of.

Image: d1sk, Getty Images/iStockphoto

COVID-19 dramatically accelerated what was a slow and inconsistent deployment of remote working policies and technologies at most companies, and in a couple of months cemented remote working as a viable option for office workers. It’s a bit odd to reflect that less than a year ago, remote working was still a novelty or outright prohibited at the majority of companies.

SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

With the COVID-19 impact still uncertain, technology leaders are likely going to be asked to continue to leverage technology to keep workers safe, and an obvious area of benefit is the factory. While automation is nothing new at most production facilities, it was previously reserved for tasks that were dangerous, difficult, or inexpensive to automate. The fact that most factories already had staff performing various tasks made the cost bar rather high for jobs that didn’t meet the dangerous or difficult threshold. If you already had someone inspecting equipment at a facility, it was essentially free to ask them to inspect a few more pieces of equipment.

However, the definition of danger is now expanding to include human proximity, causing production managers and executives to investigate new ways to reduce staffing, or provide less physical proximity. This is an area where technology can quickly help.

Remote inspection could be easier than you think

When technologies consider factory automation, we often jump to solutions involving dozens of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, real-time analytics, and predictive models, and quickly build the perfect solution that, while feature-rich, has the major detractor of being costly and time-consuming to implement. In times of uncertainty, the perfect can often become the enemy of the good enough, and while cheap sensors abound, and analytics tools are now available in the open-source market, something as simple as a connected video camera might allow one technician to inspect multiple pieces of equipment across multiple geographies.

SEE: Coronavirus having major effect on tech industry beyond supply chain delays (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

In a matter of days, you can purchase, provision, and install some cheap cameras. This solution need not be a path that precludes you from complex analytics; many companies have used cameras as a “quick and dirty” sensor of sorts, and then used image analytics to perform automated or complex monitoring. In simple cases, a junior developer might be able to whip up a tool that checks the status of a couple of lights on a piece of equipment in an afternoon, and longer-term image analytics can do everything from identifying potential quality problems to ensuring production workers maintain social distancing.

Use technology to help your factory team

One of the struggles of COVID-19 is the disparate impact it has had on workers, which has generally broken down along economic lines. As a well-positioned leader, I am able to happily work from home and maintain my productivity and pay. Those who work in your factories are not so lucky and must put themselves at risk at work and as they travel to and from work, exposing themselves and their families to hundreds of people who could be potential carriers of the coronavirus.

Most of the focus of applying technology to help these workers has been rather draconian, subjecting workers to long security lines, temperature checks, and intrusive surveys that those of us who remain home can blissfully ignore. Consider whether technology could make some of these procedures easier, or how you might also use the survey and monitoring tools you’re building to communicate with employees and thank them for their hard work and personal risk. Building these tools for a perspective of respect for the safety of your colleagues and their families, rather than a perspective of “compliance” and risk mitigation, can make a world of difference in your design and implementation decisions.

SEE: Special report: The rise of Industrial IoT (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Many of these workers also have hard-won knowledge about how your facilities function. Rather than a cursory interview or two, consider adding factory staff to your teams that are building remote monitoring tools both to inform the design and implementation process, and also to monitor and maintain the tools going forward. We’ve long lamented the monolithic nature of most technology shops, and this could be a unique opportunity to gain perspective and knowledge that’s taken years to acquire in exchange for some technology training that may only take a matter of weeks.

If nothing else, these challenging times have allowed for creativity and flexibility, and a rethinking of the status quo. Extend this thinking to your factories and warehouses, and you might just create new tools and processes that are better for your employees and the bottom line. 

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