Obviously, assembly line workers and equipment operators are still required on-site. Many have been designated essential workers, allowing plants to stay open and avoid a pandemic-related closure.
But when plants can only have a set number of people on the facility at any one time, according to their square metreage, not everyone meets this definition of essential.
Over the past year, organisations that produce goods have had to make some tough calls in taking administrative, decision-making and knowledge-based roles out of the plant and have them work remotely instead.
That means plant managers, administrators and people who oversee the production process may no longer be physically present with equipment operators or assembly line workers, even though they have the expertise and the knowledge to monitor very sophisticated capital goods like industrial robots and machine tools that perhaps some people in the plants on a day-to-day basis don’t.
Doing this remotely instead imposes a requirement for certain types of information systems - for data collection, monitoring and potentially even remote operation or automation.
It’s worth pointing out that manufacturers have been aware of the rationale for pulling information workers back from plants for decades. Twenty years ago, it was recognised that “product designers, production planners, forecasters, and many others” traditionally based at a manufacturing plant “can be telecommuted”. In addition, decision-makers could effectively work remotely if the information systems drawing data from the shop floor were fit-for-purpose and appropriately configured. Spoiler alert: many weren’t, and we saw very little progress until more recent times.
Enabling technology for remote work in these environments has dramatically improved since then, such that more of the floor can be operated from or run remotely. That’s evidenced in US government figures, which showed that 41% of workers employed in manufacturing were able to telework at April 2020 - more or less before the need for telework in these (and other) environments dramatically escalated.
As a result, I’d suggest that the figure now is higher. With necessity the mother of all invention, and the current operating environment showing little sign of change, more businesses are enabling new ways of work at plants, and more workers than ever can dial in and perform their work remotely.
A decade of lead-up
Technically speaking, we’ve seen several approaches to addressing this challenge of connecting manufacturing with head office (or with geographically-dispersed information workers).
One approach is the longstanding desire for information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) integration. Here, organisations wanted to unlock data in the traditional walled garden of OT and draw it back to a central (IT) location where it could be collated and analysed, leading to operational optimisation and the extraction of business value.
In the past five years, internet of things (IoT) technology really came to the fore to cost-effectively create IT-OT integration. Yet, even IoT has not led to change on the broad scale for which it was envisioned to.
More recently, a newer model - called E2C or ‘edge to cloud’ - has emerged that is bringing head office and manufacturing closer than ever, allowing two-way data and value exchange, and bringing remote work opportunities in the sector to life.
A path to E2C
The basic idea of E2C is that out at the edge there are ‘things’ - industrial robots, machine tools, delivery trucks and the like - that are the capital goods and means of production. Then there’s a cloud or data centre at a central point where business decisions are made.
From the edge back to the cloud, we want to move telemetry data about how assets are performing. From the cloud or data centre back to the edge, we want to move decisions.
The decisions that go back could be a single decision, such as whether to take an asset out of production for maintenance. Or - with the aid of data science - a ‘decision’ could be a software artefact deployed remotely that continually monitors assets and makes automated recommendations to factory managers to change the way a ‘thing’ is utilised.
Increasingly, product producers also want to create digital workspaces to remotely access, manage, control and optimise these many ‘things’ at the edge that make up their organisation. They also want to have enough data from the edge to make good decisions.
All of this relies on being able to create a data pipeline that extends from the core to the edge of the business.
That pipeline comprises several components. An edge or IoT gateway is often used to connect to all the different systems at the edge and harvest data from them. Businesses then need a data plane to move the data from one place to another, and a way to ‘transform’ the data into a format acceptable to a central decision-maker or data scientist. Finally, a software control plane is needed to securely and reliably move decisions back to the edge.
All of this exists now, and is why telework has never been more accessible to the manufacturing sector.