Last update on .

Understanding the Role of Technologies in Facilitating Factory Restarts

At the time of this writing, there are positive signs that commerce is recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for June reaching 50.1 (up from  40.7 in May[i]), the S&P 500 now approaching levels seen back in February, while the Nasdaq recovered from the COVID induced drop in mid-June.

All the positivity masks uncertainties. Timeframes for the introduction of a vaccine remain a hope rather than predictable timetable of events, meanwhile Government support for individuals and companies is tailing off.

For many individuals reading this the pandemic has meant a shift to telecommuting; however in most cases this simply isn’t possible for manufacturing and warehousing staff; lights out manufacturing and robots operating warehousing facilities are somewhere in the future, so employees are still required on site.

Social distancing and contact tracing are two concepts that all of us are having to become accustomed to in 2020 and the challenge for manufacturers is keeping staff members safe as they return to work. Even a single case of COVID-19 can bring an entire facility to a halt. In the Gütersloh area[ii] (population 670,000) in Germany the infection of 2,000 people with COVID-19 was linked to a meat processing factory where 1,500 people contracted the virus[iii].

There is a delicate balancing act regarding keeping people safe from infection and getting the economy humming once again. Many different types of technology suppliers have launched solutions for keeping staff safe on the factory floor, in the warehouse, and office; offering a plethora of choices to manufacturers. This blog articles highlights some example solutions on the market and some of the issues facing buyers and suppliers in delivering a safe workplace in a COVID world.

Identifying the right solution in a crowded marketplace

The following is not an exhaustive list of solutions and suppliers rather examples of solutions and initiatives have been launched in the last 3 months.

Summary table: Applications for Vendor Solutions

Vendor 

For Delivering Social Distancing

For Measuring Temperatures

For Contact Tracing

For Optimizing Employee Movements

Amazon

x

 

 

 

Foghorn

x

x

 

 

Hitachi Vantara

 

x

 

x

HPE

x

x

 

x

IBM

x

 

 

x

Siemens

x

x

x

x

Ubisense

 

 

x

x

Vodafone

 

x

 

 

Zebra

x

 

x

x

 

Keeping staff safe by enforcing social distancing and understanding their movements and the other individuals they have been in contact with (contact tracing) suits location technologies already in use tracking parts and equipment.

Ubisense has launched real-time location intelligence solutions to help manufacturers understand employees’ movements and equipment usage in order to identify contact hotspots. The information can then inform cleaning schedules and the solutions can be configured to aid monitoring and planning. Ubisense Contact Tracing is based on Ubisense’s ability to digitize facilities and movements within them and is allied with the Ubisense SmartSpace solution to help users identify underutilized capacity.

Industrial specialist Siemens is calibrating its expertise in creating digital twins and location technologies. Siemens’ Tecnomatix Process Simulate and Plant Simulation software creates a digital twin of the facility and in the event of an employee becoming infected, Siemens’ Trusted Traceability Application on MindSphere helps in contact tracing. All movement and contact with the affected employee can be visualized, and individuals who came into close contact can be notified and inform where deep cleaning should take place rather than the entire facility.

Before allowing staff back into facilities, Siemens’ SIMATIC Real Time Locating Systems (RTLS) can be used to optimize workplace layouts from both safety and productivity considerations. These systems can also help enforce social distancing by measuring distances between workers. In addition, the solution creates a log of all movements and interactions over time, helping clients simulate worker safety and optimize workspace layouts.

Day to day, the RTLS solution from Siemens helps enforce social distancing by embedding transponders in staff badges. Ultra-wide-band (UWB) radio signals map the location of the transponders and alert staff members when they are not a safe distance apart. Again, the data collected can identify “hot spots" to be monitored.

Zebra is enabling clients to roll out the cloud-based MotionWorks Proximity application on their Zebra devices, providing staff with proximity alerts if they are too near to a colleague for a minute. Authorised personnel can access the Zebra Proximity Event Dashboard and/or the Proximity Event Report to examine occurring events and spot patterns, and if required, create contact tracing reports. 

Vodafone is offering a point solution for use at entrances to facilities. The company’s heat detection camera can check the temperature of up to 100 people per minute with the company, claiming the camera is accurate to within +/- 0.3 degrees Celsius. Security staff are made aware of individuals with a raised temperature thanks to analytics software working on the thermal images that are streamed to a laptop or mobile device.

IBM is launching Watson Works—a suite of products in which artificial intelligence (AI) models data collected via Wi-Fi connections, cameras, Bluetooth beacons and mobile phones; the solutions include IBM Return-to-Workplace Advisor, IBM TRIRIGA, IBM Watson Care Manager, IBM Maximo Worker Insights and IBM Watson Assistant. The solutions look to help clients to monitor mask wearing, crowding and social distancing, and if necessary, designate no-go zones or reallocate spaces. Furthermore, the IBM solutions will incorporate external data such as trends regarding local infection rates and trends as well as state and local regulations to make recommendations. For staff members, Watson’s Natural Language Processing capabilities can underpin apps that provide answers to COVID-19 and HR questions. IBM emphasizes that while data is being collected about employees as they work in the facility, the solutions preserve employees’ privacy.

Other analytics-based solutions have been launched by FogHorn. The company’s Lightning Health & Safety Solutions use real-time edge analytics, based on live streams from video cameras or other sensors, to provide alerts and actionable insights. Individual solutions include Safety Monitoring to identify adherence to wearing personal protective equipment and safety equipment, Health Monitoring that detects elevated temperatures and coughs, and monitors hand washing, social distancing, and facial covering. The enterprise edition enables users to integrate the solutions with customer’s existing IT systems, video management software, and access control systems.

HPE is looking to help manufacturers mitigate the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak with a mix of software, hardware, and services. The applications are an extension of the firm’s Workplace-as-a-Service suite which is used by companies’ enterprises to improve productivity, retain talent, and cut costs. Again, Bluetooth-enabled devices help with social distancing by notifying if colleagues get too close for too long and HPE deploys via video analytics that can detect fever detection via thermal cameras.

Consultants are also looking to help employees return to the factory floor. Hitachi Vantara is utilizing the company’s Lumada Video Insights technologies to measure a person’s temperature from a distance with a combination of thermal cameras and lidar technology. The solution forms part of Hitachi Vantara’s proposition to modernize manufacturers operations via the digitalization of the health, safety and environment (HS&E), improve product quality, and optimize overall operations.

Meanwhile, Amazon is developing its own technologies and introducing a system that combines artificial intelligence and augmented reality to help workers maintain social distancing. Named "Distance Assistant," a 50-inch display gives workers real-time feedback about their social distancing with green circles showing compliant workers while red circles indicate those too close together. Interestingly, Amazon plans to open source the technology so it will be free for other businesses to use.

A Complex Operating Environment For All Concerned

Suppliers need to uncover the priorities, responsible individuals and budget holders (HR teams, Plant Managers, Heads of Digital Transformation, Facilities Managers) across different manufacturers. In the short term, many may choose add-on solutions from their existing suppliers in order to quickly get up and running. They should also work towards their solutions being adopted by system integrators who can then implement the solutions on behalf of their clients.

The ROI argument for deploying these types of solutions is solid; helping clients keep their workers safe, prevent virus spread, and demonstrate compliance with regulations. However, pricing solutions appropriately will be challenging. Suppliers need to make profits but face a reputational risk should they be perceived to be exploiting the situation.

The solutions will add more operational costs that cannot necessarily be passed on to their customers. It’s not simply going to be a case of manufacturers purchasing a solution, then leading to operations returning to where they were at the beginning of the year.

When implementing solutions, the primary challenge will be to ensure staff members always adhere to procedures. But manufacturers need to identify risk areas and not put workers in an unsafe environment. Where identification of risks is difficult to foresee, or the current configuration of the facility cannot deliver a safe working environment, manufacturers will need to come up with solutions to achieve this. Delivering a safe working environment will drive investments in digital twins, although many manufacturers want to get operations back as a soon as possible and not get embroiled in a digital transformation project; favoring point solutions to meet a defined use case, e.g. social distancing, rather than a whole optimization strategy. Also, manufacturers need to have robust data handling procedures to allay employee and trade union concerns regarding their privacy at work.

Time is of the essence because government support packages will only last so long; production lines need to restart as soon as possible.

You can get full quantitative and qualitative reports on similar topics that are top of mind for business leaders in the industrial and manufacturing sector, by subscribing to our Industrial & Manufacturing Research Service.