Leveraging the Digitalization Toolbox to Distance Workers in the COVID-19 Era

Leveraging the Digitalization Toolbox to Distance Workers in the COVID-19 Era
Leveraging the Digitalization Toolbox to Distance Workers in the COVID-19 Era

Running a manufacturing plant in the COVID-19 pandemic era means distancing coworkers and minimizing their interactions.  This requires rethinking, rearranging, and reengineering the typical workplace which includes work cells, machine stations, assembly line stations, and other work areas, in order to properly distance personnel.  Fortunately, there are a range of industrial automation solutions available that can help organizations achieve these new goals while also being consistent with forward looking digitalization investments to improve productivity. 

Worker & Automation System Collaboration

At a high level, think about worker and automation system collaboration as a means to eliminate the requirement for person-to-person interaction.   These improvements work to improve efficiency and may help to offset losses in productivity created by distancing. Improving worker productivity is always valuable as it has been and as it will be in the COVID-19 pandemic era, and should always be an important goal in order for manufacturers to be competitive.

Essential Strategy for Organizational Survival

There is a thought that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has and will continue to shrink the overall market for most products.  The implication, as a manufacturer, is that you might be vying along with your competitors for business from a smaller available market, therefore improving quality, productivity, and efficiency is vitally important to be successful.

Tools Available to Accomplish Distancing & Greater Productivity


Personal HMI

One means of establishing personnel distance is to provide workers their own wireless HMI devices, so they are not touching sharing keyboards, screens, mice, joysticks and other devices.  These devices can include voice communications and provide a way to collaborate efficiently and remotely with coworkers, supervisors, and management at a distance.

Smart Devices

Enhanced use of smartphones, and related applications, is one possibility, but this creates cybersecurity and business risks that could lead to major cybersecurity issues down the road. Safer possibilities could include assigning company-controlled smart phones, tablet computers, and laptops, specifically to each person. Even here, these open device solutions pose unique problems.   

Smart Glasses/Helmets

The numbers of smart glasses and helmets have grown dramatically from consumer- to industrial-grade that can be used in conjunction with smart devices. There can be versions integrated into industrial helmets for special areas requirements. Along with integrated audio, this can provide a hands-free means to enhance distanced worker interaction.  

These devices can also include multiple 360-degree cameras, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS that can be used for personnel tracking in hazardous and safety areas.

Workers can use this equipment to bring up step-by-step assembly instructions, procedures, and operating manuals displaying step-by-step assembly instructions in the worker’s field of vision.  In assembly areas, workers can be guided with pick-by-vision instructions - including all order information. Assembly of individual items can be confirmed with voice-controlled barcode scans, using the camera built-in to the glasses.

Through this, service and maintenance can personnel have hands-free access to manuals, repair guides, graphical plant diagrams, and troubleshooting tips.

Further efforts can be made by adding QR codes signs on machines, work cell, and process equipment. These codes can be used to automatically bring up information using smart devices, making it simple and safer for workers.

Augmented Reality

Augmented reality solutions have become widely available, and these coupled with smart devices, have been working to increase productivity efficiency to a higher level.

With augmented reality tools, maintenance people may able to view additional service or repair guides or get assistance on machinery procedures from a remote expert, as well as receive early warnings of safety risks.

Rather than a supervisor physically having to come to help a production line worker, augmented reality allows the supervisor to see exactly what the worker is seeing ,and provide help remotely.

PTC during the COVID-19 Crisis is making Vuforia Chalk free to use.

Industrial Vision

Another viable distancing mechanism is the use of wired and wireless industrial video cameras, some including audio, which can be used to keep track of machine and process vital signs remotely.  These solutions can enable plant personnel, who need to look and hear equipment and processes, to diagnose issues remotely.

Remote Machine Information

Typically, there is a great deal of information in controllers, that can be used to better understand machine operations that can be used to limit or eliminate physical inspections.   This provides a literal wealth of information for remote users to monitor operations plus identify and predict problems before they disrupt efficient production.  Some examples include:

  • OEE - Overall Equipment Effectiveness
  • Basic Maintenance Information including short cycling, runtime, start/stop cycles, and machine cycles.
  • Production tracking including parts counts, capturing quality information, and real-time production flow rates.

Much of this information does not require the physical installation of new sensors. In many cases, industrial gateways can be used to capture the information from controllers, using the existing industrial control network. This information can then be communicated to HMI,SCADA, smart operator devices and business enterprise software.  This eliminates the need for application engineering to make changes inside of the controllers and PLCs to link information.  It is far safer to simply use an industrial gateway to extract information from controllers and PCs, rather than making code changes in these devices.

Collaborative Robots

Amongst the many new technologies that are impacting the manufacturing industry today, collaborative robots are a high impact automation tool that can improve manufacturing as well as become a safe working partner for humans.  Collaborative robots are a new breed of lightweight and inexpensive robots, with safety features specifically designed to  enable people to work cooperatively with these devices in a production environment. Collaborative robots can sense both humans and obstacles, and respond by automatically stopping before they cause harm or destruction. With these robots, protective fences and cages are not required, and therefore they can enable flexibility and lower implementation cost. These robots are particularly attractive investments, with a typical cost of less than $40,000 US, and their simplified programming means they can be deployed without hiring specialized engineers.

Using a programming process  moving the robot arms and end effectors to the desired positions and operations programs the robot. This is a physical form of the popular computer programming concept called “what you see is what you get” (WYSIWYG). It is designed to be intuitive for users and has been proven in many implementations to broaden the application of technology.

Your Ideas Needed

Do you have ideas you’re willing to share with others for distancing and manufacturing and production?

With the broadest audience in the industry we would love to help you share these ideas.  Simply send me a brief write up your name, electronic pictures if you have them, and we will be happy to share them in an article and optionally crediting you for submitting the idea if you give us permission.  Please send them to Bill Lydon wlydon@automation.com

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About The Author

Lydon brings more than 10 years of writing and editing expertise to Automation.com, plus more than 25 years of experience designing and applying technology in the automation and controls industry. Lydon started his career as a designer of computer-based machine tool controls; in other positions, he applied programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and process control technology. In addition to working at various large companies (e.g., Sundstrand, Johnson Controls, and Wago), Lydon served a two-year stint as part of a five-person task group, where he designed controls, automation systems, and software for chiller and boiler plant optimization. He was also a product manager for a multimillion-dollar controls and automation product line and president of an industrial control software company.

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