Thousands of professionals have been working remotely since the 1990s when computers and internet access was introduced in the workplace. In the early 2000s, remote work was primarily practiced by information systems, software development, and customer-facing roles where getting on the phone or on the computer was the core requirement of those activities. In the past 10 years, remote work has increased considerably. According to one source , “At the end of 2016, more than 26 million Americans—about 16% of the total workforce—worked remotely at least part of the time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Between 2005 and 2015, the number of U.S. employees who telecommuted increased by 115%.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every organization and forced companies to rethink who needs to be on-site to effectively do their jobs. Working remotely has suddenly changed to the preferred work option for many professionals. Service organizations that rely on electronic data delivery have the infrastructure to quickly adapt to remote work environments. However, manufacturing organizations are in a hard spot. The majority of employees need to be on-site to support manufacturing operations where assemblers, technicians, and inspectors work on processing or assembling parts to deliver products that meet customer requirements.
Manufacturing organizations have been forced to quickly adapt to provide remote work options for manufacturing support employees. Here is a model to help your organization keep remote work employees fully engaged in supporting manufacturing operations.
Robust IT Infrastructure
Make sure the right infrastructure and immediate online technical support are available for all remote employees. The communication platforms should be designed to withstand a large amount of data transfer within the organization. Have the necessary cloud data storage platforms in place to make data sharing seamless.
Standardize Collaboration Tools
Establish a common collaboration platform for online conferences. Common applications that work well and used by many organizations include Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Cisco Webex, and Google Hangouts. There are many other options, as well. The objective is for the organization’s management team to have a consistent common application that meets the manufacturing support needs.
Redesign Your Information Systems With AI
The implementation of AI will rapidly accelerate to support operations. The objective is to attain real-time data from manufacturing operations via process monitors and dashboards. All these outputs need to be accessible remotely by manufacturing support personnel. A common platform that manufacturing organizations can use to achieve this is by the implementation of a manufacturing execution system (MES). MES software options have been available for a number of years, and with the new work environment, the implementation of these software solutions will be a necessity for organizations to provide an effective platform for remote work.
Before you select software, prepare a configuration of your design plan for your MES needs. The design plan needs to consider three data collection requirements from your manufacturing process(es) that manufacturing personnel should review when working remotely: enterprise requirements planning (ERP), verification of product attributes, and process controls.
Most organizations have already established ERP systems where all business requirements are entered from sales orders, planning files, BOMs, inventory transactions, work orders, and material tracking steps throughout the production life cycle. These systems can already be accessed remotely. As the majority of the organization’s ERP users will be working remotely, it will be necessary to upgrade the ERP system to be cloud-based supported.
In addition, consider the interaction of the MES software with the ERP system. Often, there will be an overlap of data collection entries. The MES system design plan should complement the established ERP system to minimize duplicate or non-value add data collection activities.
Verification of Product Attributes
Verification of product attributes is done via inspection and test methods. These verification activities are done in the production process by inspectors, technicians, or operators where measurements are taken and collected in paper logs or databases. These activities may already be automated in some work environments. MES applications can collect these measurements across all necessary processes for your product manufactured and have these measurements be available for immediate data analysis via cloud-based applications.
Quality engineers and other customer-facing employees can analyze and determine conformance to product requirements as the product is manufactured. Furthermore, data collection can also include pictures and videos that allow for visual verification of product characteristics. Access to this information allows for remote personnel to analyze and take appropriate actions.
AI can be accelerated with process controls. Sensor technology and data bandwidth advancements allow organizations to collect millions of process datapoints if necessary. It’s important not to overwhelm the system with data collection that cannot be useful. The objective is to prepare a process control plan for all key process attributes to help engineers, technicians, and other personnel evaluate process performance to identify trends or out-of-control issues that can be addressed immediately as they occur. Cloud-based process dashboards should provide this monitoring for your critical parameters so that your engineers can not only evaluate your process but also collaborate with customers and suppliers to review process data in real-time.
Establish a Cadence
Remote work requires discipline and consistency. Establish a cadence of regular meetings and protocols on how to effectively review metrics and action items. Remote employees have the flexibility to work in their preferred environments but can be distracted and less productive if a well-defined cadence of meetings and deliverables is not established.
Supporting manufacturing operations also requires immediate corrective and preventive actions depending on events occurring in the production environment. Remote personnel must be available at a minute’s notice to address issues remotely during their assigned work schedules.
As we face a new reality in the workplace, manufacturing organizations can continue to operate effectively with the right platforms in place. Various software options are available today, giving manufacturing organizations the ability to select the right MES for their needs. An effective MES will make remote work a seamless transition.
1. Z. Greenbaum, “The Future of Remote Work,” American Psychological Association, October 1, 2019.
This column originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of SMT007 Magazine.