The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for manufacturers. As lockdown orders took hold across the country, many factories scaled back or closed, leaving workers unable to return to their jobs.
But while many office staff and managers have been able to work from home, factories have not yet been designed in a way that allows workers on the factory floor to do their jobs remotely.
That reality has posed serious operational challenges for manufacturers and economic hardships for workers, but it also has created an opportunity to rethink factory work.
The ongoing pandemic is teaching us that we must plan ahead for future emergencies that will slow or shut down on-site work. And in doing that, we must consider new operating models that don’t require everyone to be physically present.
Imagine a workplace where robots that aren’t automated could be operated remotely so that production could continue uninterrupted even if no one could enter the plant.
That idea isn’t so far-fetched.
Robotic surgery gives us a glimpse into such a future. For years, surgeons have performed minimally invasive procedures using a set of robotic hands to manipulate medical instruments that are controlled from across the room. During a robotic-assisted procedure, the surgeon's movements are translated into precise movements by the instruments, which can work inside tiny incisions in the patient’s body.
Could that kind of technology be adapted to a remote manufacturing workstation?
The technologies needed, in fact, already exist. These include robotics, remote control systems, high-speed remote communications and terminal access.
Microsoft Windows enabled remote access to computer desktops at least a decade ago. That innovation makes it possible for a person at home, looking at a computer screen, to use augmented reality to control the workbench remotely.
Remote three-dimensional vision — whether it's virtual reality, augmented reality or stereo vision — all exist. We use them whenever we play video games.
However, those technologies have not yet been fully integrated into manufacturing.
Pre-pandemic, it didn’t seem worth it. Why invest large amounts of money developing a remote workbench when it isn’t absolutely necessary? Financially, it just didn’t make sense.
Yes, it would be costly — and it is understandable that the average-sized manufacturer would be resistant to investing, developing and designing a remote factory right now. However, the novel coronavirus outbreak and the resulting business disruptions have given manufacturers a financial incentive to reconsider the substantial investment.
I think it’s an idea whose time has come.
Some manufacturers already utilize monitoring systems with dashboards that display production metrics that can track performance and make recommendations from afar.
The COVID-19 pandemic could and should inspire creative thinking that leads to the development of new and even better tools. (In the case of robotic surgery, its use offers advantages over traditional “open” surgery for certain procedures, including greater precision and visualization for the surgeon, and less pain, minimal scarring and faster recovery for patients.)
While the global pandemic has shaken economies, disrupted manufacturing and taken an incalculable human toll, it also has opened the door to innovation.
Preparing today to enable more remote work will help businesses be more flexible in the future. Tornadoes, hazmat incidents, wildfires and other emergencies can happen at any time. Manufacturers need to be ready.
Tony Del Sesto is technical fellow for MxD, a Manufacturing USA Institute that partners with the Department of Defense to equip US factories with digital tools and expertise. Del Sesto works with MxD's manufacturing partners to develop, test and commercialize state-of-the-art digital technologies to increase the productivity of American manufacturing.