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  • By Louis Columbus
  • Workforce Development

Imagine having to reinvent your manufacturing business in real time as customers in one market put a hold on purchases while those in another are placing record-size orders that need to be delivered in days. This is the reality many manufacturers have faced over the past year—pivoting from markets that have slowed, such as automotive aftermarket parts, to areas with huge spikes in demand, notably personal protective equipment (PPE) and COVID-19 testing kits. 

The trend is continuing in 2021 with the recent enactment of the Defense Production Act to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine and supplies production. Moreover, the global supply chain issues over the past year have more retailers, healthcare providers, original equipment manufacturers, and others looking closer to home for manufacturers that can produce a range of products and components. The market shifts are bringing both new opportunities and greater pressure on manufacturers to respond quickly and with the highest quality products they can produce. 

Capitalizing on these opportunities—while ensuring product quality goals—depends on a manufacturer’s ability to pivot the entire operation. That means everything from getting new suppliers onboard to creating and distributing work instructions across the shop floor. It includes scheduling production, defining quality and compliance specs, and managing logistics, including labeling and delivery. And all of it needs to be done in days.

Clearly, adding more machinery or expanding shop floors alone will not cut it. Instead, manufacturers need to transform their teams into connected workers by providing them with the technologies, tools, and training they need to excel. Let’s look at four key ways that manufacturers are connecting their workers to successfully adapt and pivot to fast-changing conditions.

1. Guided production on the shop floor

Informed workers are key to switching rapidly from one production run to the next. For long-term employees, the process may be second nature. However, manufacturers often rely on newer employees or temp workers who will require on-the-job guidance or training.

Digital workflows presented via touchscreen-based shop floor interfaces at work centers help workers get up and running quickly. These workflows guide team members through the set of tasks they are responsible for and only present the information they need. This focused guidance effectively provides intuitive, on-the-job training that improves accuracy, helps users adapt to exception-based workflows for product customizations, and prevents the most common human errors.

2. Companywide communications

The goal of any connected worker strategy is to break down the silos between workers by enabling them to communicate digitally. Manufacturers are achieving this by giving employees access to information residing on systems whether employees are working in the office, remotely, or on the shop floor. Systems, such as enterprise resource planning, manufacturing execution systems, quality management, customer service, and customer relationship management software, are a lifeline for workers, giving them the context they need to excel in their roles.

Employees may access such systems from their remote offices or via tablets or other mobile devices to stay informed of what is going on during the day. Monitors displaying data on the shop floor also provide visibility. Even more powerful is the ability to dive into the details as needed right from the work center.

Regardless of the mechanism, by enabling employees to access data anywhere they need it, manufacturers can vastly improve employee decision making and create greater competency levels across the entire production team. Equally important is having shared information to guide workers toward common goals. As the founder and CEO of one manufacturing company noted, “It’s imperative everyone owns product quality, so if we’re producing piping one day and PPE the next, everyone knows the quality goals.”

3. Real-time production and process monitoring

Connecting workers starts with recognizing that data needs to be as up to the moment as possible. Real-time production and process monitoring give teams the insights they need to collaborate and continuously improve. Real-time production monitoring helps workers follow jobs as they move from production scheduling through production to fulfillment. It also provides instantaneous feedback on critical parameters, such as total parts created, production time, downtime, rejects and parts remaining to be produced, and any cavitation changes.

Real-time process monitoring is used for monitoring, analyzing, and communicating key parameters of devices, including pressures, temperatures, dimensions, weight, and fill rate. Manufacturers use real-time process monitoring to create statistical process control charts and graphs to identify any potential anomalies in the production process and ensure product quality remains high.

4. Certified robotics maintenance

The acute labor shortage in manufacturing has been exacerbated by the higher hourly wages that Amazon, Target, Walmart, and other large-scale e-commerce providers are paying employees in their distribution centers. To mitigate recurring labor shortages, more manufacturers are investing in robotics for diverse, repetitive tasks on the shop floor. These range from end-of-arm assembly to labeling, pick and place, packaging, stacking, and palletizing. 

At the same time, forward-thinking manufacturers are investing in employees who want to become certified on maintaining their robotics, whether through bonuses or reimbursement for courses passed. By relying on new technologies to open up new learning opportunities, manufacturers can attract employees seeking a career path. Additionally, as one manufacturing CEO noted, having an internal robotics services team will save significant costs down the line. 

Connected workers are more about how technology can be selectively used to ensure each team member excels and less about smart manufacturing for its own sake. By enabling connected workers, manufacturers can create an ideal environment to excel despite the rapid changes and unpredictability facing the market today. By using real-time production and process monitoring and sharing data in real time anywhere employees need it, manufacturers are breaking down barriers between departments and creating a more adaptive workforce.

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About The Authors


Louis Columbus, enterprise software strategist, is currently principal of DELMIAWORKS and a member of the Enterprise Irregulars. Columbus has an MBA from Pepperdine University and completed the Strategic Marketing Management and Digital Marketing Programs at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. You can reach him on Twitter at @LouisColumbus.