- By Melissa Landon
- March 16, 2021
The economic disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every industry around the globe, driving many people to work from home. But those working in manufacturing faced unique challenges. How do we maintain the same level of success in the workplace when some people can’t be on site?
“How do we maintain the same level of success in the workplace when some people can’t be on site?” “How will we ensure solutions add value to operations, especially when it comes to digital capabilities?” “What can astronauts teach us about a workplace disrupted by COVID-19?”
Speakers answered these questions and more in the presentation and panel discussion “Remote Connected Worker: Today and in the Future,” featured in the ARC’s 25th Annual Industry Forum. The COVID-19 pandemic affected nearly every industry, driving many people to work from home, but those working in manufacturing faced unique challenges. Remote work existed long before the pandemic, but the relatively new phrase “remote, connected worker” optimistically implies that remote workers can have the same access to crucial information and SMEs through visualization technologies and modern platforms.
What astronauts can teach us about supporting the remote worker
Brian Perlstein, digital manufacturing enterprise architect with Owens Corning, recalled the small satellite called “Sputnik” that the Soviet Union launched, sparking worldwide interest in space travel and creating a call to action for the space race. “Just like the Sputnik started the space race, the pandemic kickstarted digital transformation,” Perlstein said.
Perlstein drew a parallel between astronauts in space collaborating with experts still on earth and manufacturers working off-site or remotely accessing subject matter experts. “Just like astronauts in outer space, our manufacturing facilities have operators with a subset of knowledge who maintain operations with the help of subject matter experts. Traditionally, SMEs traveled in person to the sites, but during the pandemic, remote support became more common.”
Setting up remote, connected workers for success involves maintaining operations and safety when only essential resources can be on site; enabling collaboration, support and knowledge sharing; capturing and codifying knowledge the survive the loss of talent due to retirement; and ensuring solutions add value to operations, specifically when it comes to digital capabilities. “The gaps in our manufacturing support capabilities came to light during Covid,” Perlstein observed.
Implementing new work processes for remote working success
Mahesh Rege, director of automation at INVISTA, noted that most of the technology that companies implemented during the pandemic existed before COVID-19 hit. “The adoption of technology is what actually accelerated during the pandemic,” he said. “We started to get a lot of data from people working remotely. How does that integrate with the work process you already have in place? You might need to come up with new and improved work processes as you look at data and get your workers to collaborate remotely.”
Owens Corning did develop a new work process to meet the challenges the pandemic presented. The company implemented a program called R.O.C.K.E.T., (Remote Owens Corning Knowledge Expertise and Technology) to enable safe, real-time interactive support for manufacturing operations, integrators, suppliers, and customers at the point of need when key personnel could not be on site.
They applied remote expert software such as smart glasses and cameras to capture information, allowing remote monitoring and operation. Someone on site could be wearing a headset, hands free, speaking to someone off-site who could see what’s going on and provide instructions. ROCKET also involved the creation of videos and digital guided work instructions, employee training via VR, digital pick and place, digital engineering virtual walkthroughs, and virtual gauges/notifications.
Perlstein noted that enabling more people to work offsite not only allows them to be safe during the pandemic but also makes sense from a business perspective. Flights, hotels, and food during travel all cost money. In the past, a subject matter expert might could take multiple flights, traveling for an entire day only to spend a few hours onsite. Now, with the use of smart glasses, an onsite worker can enlist the help of an SME from anywhere in the world in a matter of moments, increasing efficiency, productivity and work life balance. “Owens Corning has set a goal to reduce travel by 40-50%,” Perlstein said.
The changing role of the Subject Matter Expert (SME)
Randall Scott Carter, a transformation strategy professional with Manchu Enterprises, conceptualized the journey of the SME in terms of three influencing factors—talent, knowledge and technology—describing its evolution in broad time categorizations of past, present, soon and future.
In the past, most of the knowledge utilized at a plant came from those who worked at the plant itself. When outside knowledge became necessary, regional SMEs typically traveled directly to the site to assist. “It was very common for these subject matter experts to spend a lot of time traveling,” Carter said.
However, when the pandemic hit, only a minimal number of people could be on site, and SMEs couldn’t travel. Instead, they began providing support remotely with whatever technology they had available or could develop for that purpose.
Some companies already had protocol in place to help employees operate remotely with the same level of productivity, but others had to develop new technologies and strategies in the throes of the pandemic to allow workers to not only work remotely but also remain connected. “The companies that had already adopted digital transformation efforts [ahead of the pandemic] were winners in this situation,” Carter said. “Companies using a data model had to come up with virtual tools on the fly. That can work, but it wasn’t optimized.”
Carter predicted that soon, plants may only have enough personnel and talent on site to operate safely and use remote or shared support. In the future, plants may have fully integrated knowledge systems between remote support and manufacturing plants, and decisions would be based on data and analytics.
Morgan Bowling, senior analytics engineer at Seeq, also spoke about what the future might hold for remote work. “It will be an open challenge for leaders when we shift back to more on-site working,” she said. “Don’t just default back to doing things the way we did them before. This is a chance for leaders to lead by example and adopt best practices. Look at the changes you’ve made and keep the ones that are making your employees happier and more efficient.”
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