When lockdown began, millions of workers found themselves thrust into the unfamiliar situation of working from home, and the transition for some industries was more straightforward than others. Most office workers realised quickly that thanks to video conferencing technology, they could work just as effectively at their kitchen table as at their desk. But for professionals in the manufacturing and industrial sectors, remote working seemed likely to be much more disruptive.
How could companies man the production line with a reduced work force, run factories cost-effectively with a decline in customer demand, and cope with pauses to supply chains and disrupted resource flow? Safety guidelines also became top of the agenda for an industry where close contact with employees and customers seemed unavoidable.
“However, the manufacturing and industrial sectors have successfully met these challenges by rapidly establishing new ways of working, with Unified Communications (UC) at their heart, accelerating what was already a growing trend towards digital transformation and optimisation of traditionally man-powered industries,” Tony Rich, head of vertical solutions, Unify – Atos Collaboration Solutions, says. “While some organisations could choose to return to previous practices once lockdown lifts, in many cases the experience of recent months and addressing those logistical challenges head on could provide the catalyst for permanent transformational growth.”
Social distancing measures have impacted on the number of workers permitted in business units, and in doing so have shone a light on both workforce and estate utilisation. Manufacturers are having to downsize or repurpose buildings too, meaning they can be managed by fewer people. Driven largely by cost, this has in many cases fast tracked business plans for workforce reduction, or reviews of workforce utilisation and building utilisation.
“Communications and collaboration tools are an essential part of the solution, enabling smaller but linked business units to operate efficiently together,” Rich continues. “This is already working effectively for some factories, including Lamborghini, where units use conveyer belts, robotics and communications tools to create a production line around workers in different units, building the cars by hand.
“No longer will factories require human checks at gates or visual tracking of parts from factories. Manufacturing will benefit from automated tracking, and using UC, drivers can use ID cards, or be checked at gates, remotely.”
Sophisticated unified communications tools allow manufacturers to lift the back office and put it anywhere in the world. With advancements in technology, and the impact of social distancing, teams can make use of smart fingers on the factory floor, whilst overseeing from a home environment. “Technology-enabled factories such as Dyson use communications tools not only to remotely manage workers, but also to see through their eyes in real time through VR glasses,” Rich adds.
The creative production process is often built from a physical team meeting or brainstorm, where workers can gather to bounce ideas off one another. But with modern communications tools, this process can be replicated through visual conferencing. Interactive whiteboards mean team members can contribute in real time, and all the planning can be done remotely, until the final stages where those in the factory can build the physical prototypes. “There are advantages to this approach,” Rich explains. “Anyone can share relevant content instantly, with a fluidity which is hard to replicate in a physical meeting room. Once a prototype is made, product demos can be shared via communications tools, and feedback can be given instantly.”
Under these unprecedented circumstances, cottage industries have seen a resurgence. “Many new and independent manufacturers have started to operate from their homes, manufacturing things like face masks,” Rich says. “Using UC tools, manufacturers can understand demand but also connect to customers, demonstrating the product and altering it to customer requirements.
“Similarly, large and well-established manufacturers have used digital tools to rapidly reconfigure factories and production lines in response to demand. McLaren and Dyson, for example, now are making ventilators in response to the coronavirus crisis.”
With modern collaboration tools, individuals have increased access to collective knowledge, specialised skills, and creativity regardless of where they are located in the world. Co-located team members may have a more common experience, culture, knowledge or background, which may limit the diversity of input, but sophisticated tools are now enabling manufacturers to draw upon a wider and more diverse pool of expertise from around the world to influence their team.
Logged into a virtual setting, there can often be fewer distractions and a greater focus on the business at hand. Individuals can concentrate on what is being discussed and what is being shown in an environment of their choosing and can also enjoy the psychological benefits of being more free to step outside or take a break than in a factory setting.
“Removing the need to commute can increase the opportunity for thinking time, lower stress levels and improve mood,” Rich concludes. “Virtual meetings can also be set up more quickly and flexibly, leaving more time to focus on the work at hand.”