The future of work – an automation boom is closer than it may appear, and manufacturing is leading the way


(© PopTika – shutterstock)

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a serious impact on how we work. Businesses that were just dipping their toes into remote work, and the technologies to support that model, were thrown into the deep end in March when the pandemic reached the United States. In the typical office environment, this normalized quickly. Working from home, communicating with clients and co-workers via video conferencing, and collaborating through work management platforms went from a novelty to a business must-have overnight.

But what happened in environments where physical work is required, like manufacturing operations? Working remotely or even just complying with social distancing requirements presented a unique challenge. At first glance, it seemed it would take longer for these environments to adapt. However, in reality, the technology to support manufacturers’ digitization efforts was already being used; the pandemic simply pushed these technologies from pilot into widespread application, rapidly scaling to address immediate business needs.

Like office environments that were experimenting with video conferencing pre-pandemic, sectors such as manufacturing were doing likewise with automation. And, similar to the way the use of video conferencing and collaboration technology has accelerated in the past six months, the pace of automation adoption is picking up at the same rate.

Completely contactless or touchless factories were already on the rise pre-pandemic and may be the norm sooner than later. Just look at lights-out operations, or the progress of automotive manufacturer Toyotetsu, which is working toward 100% PLC (programmable logic controls) integration to virtually eliminate manual processes. Thanks to the accelerated interest in systems, platforms and technologies that address social distancing requirements, these futuristic factories could be here quickly, and stay for the long term. 

In Toyetsu’s case, they have already integrated their PLCs (programmable logic controls) in over 250 work centers in its first plant. They are planning on PLC integration in 100 percent of their machines across North America. This will effectively eliminate manual processes, increasing reporting efficiency and real-time information flow. They also plan to integrate their Kanban methodology with our Kanban capabilities. This will be another aid to safer shop floors – giving increased visibility of plant operations both on the plant floor, and in the office.

Where automation is happening in manufacturing

Some of the automation technologies used today have a very visible role on the plant floor. Cobots are interspersed between human workers on the line. Wearables help machine operators problem-solve remotely. IP-enabled tools are used for quality checks, with no manual input required. Remote-controlled forklifts are gaining traction.

We’re also seeing the power of automation working behind the scenes in the data, thanks to my company’s access to 20 years of cloud manufacturing production transactions, which we collect in real-time from facilities stretching across 35 countries around the world. (See my latest analysis: Manufacturers Maintain Momentum, Make Progress on Production Losses).

The graph below shows the percentage of unique user logins to our platform vs. the percentage of production in 2020. At the beginning of the year, production was lower than or just met the level of user logins. Looking at the graph, you’ll see production took a huge hit during the first wave of the pandemic when lockdown and quarantines were enforced. Logins dipped as well, but not at the levels seen in production.

(© Plex Systems)

What is interesting about this graph is that following that steep drop, the volume of logins and production stabilized to pre-pandemic levels, but then production continued escalating and overtook logins. That is automation at work. It shows that even during the periods of high activity we’re seeing today, manufacturers are managing with fewer workers on the plant floor, indicating that automation, made possible through the use of smart manufacturing technology, is filling the gap between worker presence and production. That is helping manufacturers to maintain production continuity at a time when local COVID-19 flareups must be factored in. As I wrote:

While COVID cases continue to fluctuate and most recently climb again, we’re seeing less reactivity within the rate of production among manufacturers. This suggests that these companies are able to continue to keep their workforce safe and maintain business continuity, despite local communities experiencing a rise in cases.

Based on this, it could be easy to assume that there’s no reason for manufacturers to bring back workers. After all, they’re doing just fine without them, right?

Wrong.

Like any new technology that is reinventing an industry, it’s easy to be critical of automation and its impact on the current workforce and processes. But what we’ve found through more than two decades supporting manufacturers is that just because you’re not seeing as many workers on the plant floor, it doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared from the organization. Automation and more broadly, smart manufacturing, creates new categories of jobs that build on the institutional knowledge of the existing workforce. Today’s operator, for example, might be tomorrow’s preventative maintenance manager with the help of Industrial IoT.

What this pandemic has proved is that whether in an office or on the plant floor, technology should be considered part of a business’ toolkit to deal with the unexpected. To react with agility. And to pivot with increased accuracy. Automation has the power to shape the way we work in the future while helping manufacturing thrive well into the next decade.



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