Will the next industrial revolution bring the factory floor home?
The COVID-19 pandemic sent millions of office workers to the shelter of their homes. And while we’re well past lockdown status (at least in this country), many have yet to return to the traditional workplace, full- or even part-time.
We quickly learned during the crisis that most office and administrative tasks could be performed from home — never mind the kids, pets, laundry and battles to carve out private workspaces amid the bustle. In the process, we sacrificed certain positive byproducts of an office environment, such as social interaction and the building of a solid corporate culture. But the job was still getting done.
What couldn’t be brought home during the pandemic was, to no one’s surprise, factory work. There’s simply no substitute for having people present on the production line (notwithstanding a growing dependence on automation to pare their numbers). Now, however, even that assumption about work practices is being challenged.
Jerry Foster, chief technology officer and founder of Plex, maker of a “smart” manufacturing software platform, see the potential for a shift of at least some factory duties to the home. The number of people working from home tripled between 2019 and 2021, he notes, from 5.7% to 17.9%, although approximately 60% of all work, including most manufacturing jobs, couldn’t be done remotely.
Until now. The key to the dream of remote manufacturing, Foster says, lies in virtual and augmented reality, which effectively puts the worker on the assembly line for all purposes short of physically touching the goods.
In fact, the first building block in making that possible — cloud computing — has been with us for a number of years. But VR and AR are the final elements that will, in Foster’s opinion, transform the very nature and practice of manufacturing.
The cloud proved its value to plant operations in the pandemic. Foster cites one customer that relied on cloud-based software to keep its production line working, retaining only essential workers onsite and sending home all non-line staff. “Managers were able to make decisions in real time,” he says, “and the cloud-based plants kept going like nothing happened.”
By contrast, another plant that wasn’t equipped with software in the cloud experienced “black holes” of communication, forcing workers to fall back on e-mail and phone, and resulting in major disruptions in the production plan, Foster says.
Imagine an individual sitting on their living room couch and wearing VR goggles, not to play a video game but to carry out a day’s work of production. What they would be seeing is a digital twin — a visual and virtual representation of the factory floor, with which they could interact in real time.
Think of it as button-pushing from afar. “VR takes the ability that the cloud gives office workers, and extends it to those who normally would have to be on site,” Foster says.
Of course, we’re far from that kind of operation being an everyday thing, but it’s more than just a vision. AR is already playing a key role in helping workers do their jobs on the shop floor, and digital-twin technology is rapidly taking hold in both business planning and execution.
Foster believes the technology can be of particular value in discrete manufacturing for such industries as automotive and food and beverage — anything that has the machine doing a repetitive task and requiring an operator.
Some obvious questions arise, especially with regard to quality control. If workers aren’t physically present on the line, how can they ensure that product is being made to spec? And can they quickly address the inevitable issues that crop up on any complex assembly line?
Foster says the technology is already making “strong advances” in artificial intelligence-based visual inspection of product on the line. “A number of our customers are implementing vision systems using AI that can trigger an alert on quality issues,” he notes. There’s even talk of applying the concept of the metaverse (which by some definitions is nothing more than VR on steroids) to trigger alerts when a quality issue is detected.
Also at risk, one might argue, is the natural communication and interaction that occurs among factory workers when they’re present in the same physical space. That’s a potential issue with any remote technology, Foster acknowledges, even when it comes to office workers. “There has to be some sort of intentionality by leadership to make sure collaboration still happens,” he says, in the form of regular face-to-face meetings.
The same level of attention must be paid to maintaining a solid corporate culture among geographically dispersed workers. A survey by Plex found a strong affinity among employees for remote work, even as they somewhat paradoxically said they felt less engaged in the job. “To be completely honest, it’s a little bit harder [to do],” Foster says. “When you’re on site, the culture is absorbed much more naturally.”
Communication in a remote working environment, whether for office- or factory-based tasks, can be especially challenging to maintain outside one’s immediate team. “You have to do a better job of getting cross-functional groups together.”
In Foster’s view, none of this will stop cloud technology, paired with VR and other digital processes, from making possible at least some degree of manufacturing in a remote setting. VR and its accompanying technologies might be in the hype stage now, but he envisions proof of concept within five years, and “wouldn’t be surprised” if the model became reality in about a decade. “We’re on our way,” he says, “but not quite there yet.”
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