Up until the pandemic, manufacturers largely focused their digital transformation initiatives and operational (OT) investments on connecting assets to gain insight through production data. But now—realizing that if they fail to digitally connect their factory workers, they cannot maintain operations without putting worker safety at risk—companies are finally acknowledging that digital transformation must extend to frontline workers.
I believe this is one of the reasons that the connected factory worker has risen to the top of Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Manufacturing Operations Strategy in just two years since it debuted in the report. Gartner defines connected factory workers as “capable of using various digital tools and data management techniques to improve and integrate their interactions with both physical and virtual surroundings.” This in turn helps workers “make faster and better decisions that enable and optimize processes that they participate in.”
But even when things eventually return to normal and all these additional safety measures are no longer required, manufacturers will continue to reap the benefits of keeping their factory workers digitally connected. We know this based on the stories of leading manufacturers that have migrated daily tasks into the digital domain long before COVID.
Working to standard. When employees at the installation products division of ABB need to consult a work instruction or troubleshooting tip, they don’t leave their workstations to locate the document that is stored in a binder at their supervisor’s office. Instead, they use a tablet to scan the barcode of their equipment to instantly pinpoint the document they need. And because ABB has replaced many of its text-heavy documents with more visual instructions, it’s significantly faster and easier for operators to follow instructions and complete tasks. Photos and videos that were taken using a tablet provide a step-by-step demonstration of how to properly complete a task or troubleshoot a problem.
By digitally transforming the factory floor, ABB has increased worker productivity by 18%, reduced non-conformity issues by 64%, and reduced safety accidents by 60%.
Problem-solving. When operators at Bosch Power Tools plants experience a problem with their equipment, they use a mobile device to send out a digital “call for help” on their digital communications feed. This often includes a photo or video of the problem. All experts and workers assigned to that equipment are automatically notified, and anyone can respond if they have a solution. They then can post a comment, photo or video of how to solve the problem. Once resolved, the content from the collaborative post can then be easily saved in a knowledge base as a trouble-shooting tip and shared across their plants.
By giving workers the ability to digitally communicate and collaborate to solve problems and share knowledge, Bosch has increased worker productivity by 8%, and improved mean time to react and mean time between repairs by 54% and 73% respectively.
Training and development. When operators are trained at the specialized nutrition division of Danone, they don’t rely solely on shadowing. Instead, they independently review video micro-lessons on a tablet. After they’ve completed key lessons, they practice the skill and demonstrate their competency with their trainer. Because the digital content is easily available to operators, they don’t need to learn all skills at once. They learn “just in time” as the need arises, or as a refresh is required.
By moving to digital training content and video micro-lessons, Danone has decreased the time and cost of shadowing by 40% and reduced the time and cost to create content by 50%.
What’s more, the ability to safely train workers without the need for in-person training has been a real lifeline for a food manufacturer in China since the pandemic. “Most of our process specialists have been quarantined, which means no one is available to train new hires coming in to replace them,” explained the plant’s continuous improvement manager in the early weeks of the pandemic. “But new employees have had no trouble learning the operations using videos. We’re now committed to digitizing all of our work instructions by the end of the year.”
Skills management. When supervisors and HR at a Canadian dairy manufacturer need to replace a worker who has called in sick, or produce training and skills reports during yearly audits, they no longer have to sift through dozens of spreadsheets. Rather, they consult a digital skills matrix that gives them real-time visibility into workers’ competencies. They can quickly see the skills coverage across their entire workforce, and then drill into each worker’s training and development program to see their progress. This includes which skills they have completed, their skill level, and when they need to renew a skill. The digital skills matrix is automatically updated as workers complete lessons in their training program, take exams and are endorsed for skills by their supervisor or trainer.
By tracking skills digitally, Riviera now provides auditors with up-to-date records on their workforce’s training and skills in just 10 minutes versus one hour when they were tracking skills manually using spreadsheets. Further, the dairy manufacturer is now fully compliant with regards to training, which has helped increase their annual audit score from 86% to 91%.
Essential workers must be empowered to communicate, collaborate, share knowledge and learn in real-time no matter their location, so can they contribute to operational excellence, become more autonomous, thrive in their roles and take on new challenges.
Alexandre Leclerc is CEO & co-founder of the connected worker application Poka. He was previously U.S. director of continuous improvement for Leclerc Foods, a food manufacturer that has been in his family since its founding in 1905.