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You Can Take it With You: Hybrid Work Methods Shift Some Tasks Anywhere

Geoff Giordano
By Geoff Giordano Contributing Editor, SME Media

The surge in use of digital production and communications tools during the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the future of the hybrid workplace, in which some employees and tasks can be redirected outside the manufacturing facility.

Librestream provides an augmented reality remote solution platform. The company’s Onsight platform tracks how many inspections customers perform every week. That figure has reached 7,000 to 8,000 inspections. (Provided by Librestream)

However, while personnel like designers and engineers are easily able to work remotely—and, depending on the company, did so pre-pandemic—machines still need operators on site. That said, solutions such as virtual or mixed reality and cloud-based connectivity are driving organizations to rethink how they schedule and perform certain manufacturing duties.

The Benefits of Hybrid

Faced not only with shortages of skilled workers but also the need to revamp their workplaces to accommodate pandemic protocols, manufacturers have intensified their quest to find and optimize digital tools for their unique environments.

“While the benefits from a health and safety perspective are clear during a global pandemic, manufacturers in particular saw productivity and employee retention benefits” to pursuing hybrid work arrangements, said Reid Paquin, research director for IDC Manufacturing Insights of Needham, Mass. “Over a third also experienced higher employee experience/satisfaction, which we think will play a role in the industry’s efforts to deal with talent/labor issues.”

In addition to manufacturing, “most large OEMs have field service elements, and one issue that’s almost universal right now is the loss of employees and problems with knowledge transfer,” said Charlie Neagoy, senior vice president of customer success for Librestream. “We’re currently about three million people ahead of schedule in terms of retirement, and that has accelerated this knowledge gap. The hybrid workforce—the ability to do things from different places—helps offset the knowledge loss that comes from early retirement. Hybrid workforces can offer jobs across the world and different kinds of flexibility for their employees.”

Librestream, based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, provides an augmented reality (AR) remote solution platform. “A related benefit of hybrid workplaces is that it enables shared collaboration platforms among multiple parties,” Neagoy added. “Safety is also a major reason to use hybrid workforces. Many of the locations and equipment in manufacturing are dangerous, so accessing a site remotely decreases the risk of an accident.”

Remote work platforms like Librestream’s allow workers to access dangerous locations and equipment remotely to decrease the risk of an accident. (Provided by Librestream)

Furthermore, required inspections and certifications can be done remotely, Neagoy continued. “Our Onsight platform allows us to track how many inspections our customers do every week. Our customers do between 7,000 and 8,000 inspections remotely every week. Before COVID, we were recording around 2,000 inspections a week.”

The pandemic has demonstrated that a hybrid workforce brings increased organizational resiliency and worker efficiency, according to Federico Sciammarella, president and CTO of MxD, Chicago, which focuses on digital manufacturing and is part of Manufacturing USA, a network of 14 advanced manufacturing institutes.

“If an organization has the right network infrastructure in place, and it is secure, it is possible to run operations remotely,” Sciammarella said. “Proper network infrastructure makes a company more resilient because individuals can still access the necessary data to keep operations running even when working remotely.”

How and Where to Start

As with any organizational or industry transformation, technology alone will not solve emerging problems. Remote monitoring and collaboration tools have become commonplace, but as ever, proper planning is critical to embracing a hybrid model.

“Collaboration, video conferencing and content-sharing platforms/applications are some of the areas that manufacturers have invested in or are looking to make investments in to better enable hybrid work models,” noted Paquin of IDC Manufacturing Insights. “Most manufacturers will almost always need to have some employees onsite. Maintenance/asset management is one of those areas where this will be the case; there needs to be someone turning a wrench. In the future, manufacturers may be able to shift more of that to robots, but at the moment the maturity of the technology and investment costs don’t make that a reality for most manufacturers.”

Manufacturers that had already made large investments in automation, data collection and remote connectivity had the infrastructure in place to support this shift prior to the pandemic, Paquin acknowledged. “We saw that manufacturers that had cloud systems in place, like ERP, were best suited to hybrid work. The best approach is to build a strategy/roadmap across the organization but roll it out in smaller steps. Start with back office-type functions, as less investment would be needed to enable remote work for these groups. Pay attention to the remote work policies in place and how to manage remote employees, and incorporate best practices and lessons learned as you continue to expand to more functions.”

Noting that the average worker spends 240 hours a year—10 days—waiting for information, Neagoy of Librestream advised that “if you’re an operator on the floor, a good strategy is to take a subject matter expert’s knowledge and embed it into digital work instruction, so you’re not waiting on that expert anymore.”

Putting new technology in the right workers’ hands is essential, Neagoy continued. “If you’re going to introduce a new technology, start with the technology adept. Our customers typically see a bimodal distribution of user uptake: It’s radically different between people 10 years from retirement and people less than 10 years into their career.”

Be assured, he said, that “this is something that can be implemented in three months. It’s not going to be realized completely in three months, but in three months you should be able to move the needle.”

Sandvik Coromant’s CoroPlus Machining Insights is a software-as-a-service platform that monitors machine conditions. Users can tell what’s happening with a particular machine tool by just logging in to a site. (Provided by Sandvik Coromant)

As when approaching other manufacturing operations, said MxD’s Sciammarella, “actions must be planned out carefully and holistically, with the basic tools of continuous improvement in mind. It is important to first review what you currently have in place and why. The ‘why’ is critical and may seem obvious, but that is not always the case, especially if you have a long history of workflows. A company will want to get to a point where the team knows what data and information can be digitized—if it’s not already—and how that can be used to support not only flexible work schedules but also a continuous improvement process that can be tapped into remotely so that production can continue to make products and optimize work as needed.”

If an organization has started implementation of cloud technologies for business data, he added, “it could leverage those cloud technologies for operational data collection and make files and information readily available for that workforce.”

Recent Successes

For Fives Lund of Seattle, a producer of highly customized machinery, workplace flexibility and having the right tools to perform critical tasks remotely has been part of the culture for years.

Embracing opportunities to ensure their employees can be as effective as possible wherever they are has “been an ongoing process since we joined the Fives group in 2015,” said CEO Casey McGarity. “Even before COVID, that was an ongoing process and a journey—not a destination.”

Prior to the pandemic, “our workforce was pretty heavily concentrated at our facility in Seattle—but we always had engineers and technicians who were out in the field supporting equipment,” added Jonathan Schwedhelm, lead mechanical engineer and director of engineering. “We also co-design some of our complex automation equipment with our sister companies throughout the world.”

Then came the pandemic. And while Fives Lund was on pace with other large employers in its region as far as people working from home, “we have a pretty hands-on environment,” Schwedhelm explained. “Our engineers and technicians work really close together to build, test and support our equipment.” That meant getting creative to continue engineering and delivering equipment and supporting customers.

“Early on, that meant some engineers took smaller projects and assemblies home to work on. Some of our controls engineers set up hardware in their homes so they could program the machines—but that really doesn’t scale.”

That’s where Run MyVirtual Machine from Siemens came in. The machine operation simulation software “opens opportunities for controls engineers to be able to start building the controls ‘guts’ of the machine and test kinematics and operation, as well as simulate the machines at scale to make sure they do things as fast as you think they will,” Schwedhelm said.

Run MyVirtual Machine has worked wonders on a project that began the year before the pandemic, he continued.

“In 2019, we started working on a large piece of automation equipment, and our customer required us to use Siemens CNC controls. We’re familiar with a number of different NC control systems, but the machine we were building had some really unique kinematics, and we knew it had some big technical hurdles that we had to de-risk ahead of hardware being available—and make sure we could do it while not having to sit in front of the control panels here at our facility.”

While experienced with other modeling software, he continued, “since this was a Siemens project, it let us for the first time take advantage of this tool—use it in the planning, use it to de-risk and make sure that we’re making good decisions as we went along the design process. And now that the supply chain is becoming a bigger issue and lead times for our controls components can be challenging, it lets us keep moving without being completely stalled.”

A survey by IDC Manufacturing Insights found respondents see numerous benefits from remote work arrangements. (Provided by IDC)

Core to Fives Lund’s culture is the fact that “our engineers—mechanical, electrical and software—are often working shoulder-to-shoulder out on the floor and actually building machines and troubleshooting,” McGarity noted. “At the very least, the engineers are available to visit the shop floor as they run into issues” or to assist in planning, assembly or testing. To the extent engineers aren’t “out there actively participating” in shop-floor tasks, “they’re deeply involved in the planning of those things.”

Addressing the core issue of implementing hybrid workflows in manufacturing, McGarity noted that while the shop floor staff had to remain on site, “it was very difficult and very different for Fives Lund to not have the engineers right there to help with that process. Like a lot of companies, we were weighing the risks of COVID vs. the risk of the culture and efficiency that comes by having a strong, cohesive team. The tools that we have help maintain that culture. We started with a particularly healthy and strong group, but those collective muscles atrophy a bit, even with good tools. The more effective the tools are, the more able we are to keep up our strength for longer. But we also need to get back and remind ourselves: ‘We’re stronger when we’re physically close’.”

Adapting with Adjusted Workflows

Hybrid solutions also come naturally to Sandvik Coromant, which not only provides tools that foster remote work opportunities for its customers, but has also adjusted workflows at its own cutting tool factories.

“Having the technology in place, as far as CAD/CAM, has helped us, but obviously we still need people here to run the equipment,” said Production Unit Manager Richard Boyle. “We’re not to the point that our equipment runs lights out—we still need our operators here—but it gave us a good opportunity to move ahead with the engineering aspects of our manufacturing floor, with manufacturing engineers being in the office, on the production floor and also being able to work from home a percentage of the time.”

When the pandemic hit, Sandvik designers also worked remotely most of the time, Boyle said, cycling one in to the shop floor every week on a rotating schedule to provide production support while also limiting any one person’s exposure. Meantime, the company employs what it calls unmanned production, alternating machine operators “when we have a piece of equipment that has automation on it and runs without an operator present.”

Boyle explained that between two eight-hour machine operator shifts, a four-hour interval is scheduled. With two cells opposite one another, those schedules can be staggered so only one operator has to be on-site to attend an interruption in either cell. “We have people starting work pretty much around the clock to make sure we have full coverage.”

He also credits Sandvik’s partnership with Microsoft and its HoloLens mixed-reality technology for facilitating hybrid work. “Most of the technology we’re utilizing in production from our MES and our dashboards—all the available data—is coming through their solutions. We have had an outage here and there, maybe for a couple of hours where we can’t log on to a service, but they are few and far between.”

During the pandemic, Sandvik commissioned a new piece of equipment that was flown in from Sweden when all passenger travel was canceled, Boyle recalled. “Instead of waiting until travel was allowed again and the technician from Sweden could come over and finish installing it, through use of technology like HoloLens, we were able to have our local maintenance staff work directly with this individual, who could see directly through their eyes what they were doing and make sure we were focusing on the right things to get this machine commissioned and operating.”

Ultimately, Boyle said, balancing hybrid and traditional workflows is “always a struggle. It’s something you have to work at. With hybrid, we don’t say anyone is 100 percent remote. If you can try to open a process to being remote that isn’t quite ready for it, it’s sometimes hard to pull it back in. We’ve been very slow and meticulous in opening a process up to hybrid, making sure we’re able to sustain and modify it quickly so it doesn’t fail.”

For customers, Sandvik provides remote-ready products including CoroPlus Machining Insights and CoroPlus Process Control, said Jeff Rizzie, director of digital machining sales for the Americas.

Mike Andersen, training and center manager for the Americas, demonstrates technology at the Sandvik Coromant Center in Mebane, N.C. (Provided by Sandvik Coromant)

Machining Insights is a software-as-a-service platform that monitors machine conditions, Rizzie explained. “We can tell what’s happening with a particular machine tool just by logging in to a site. I can understand utilization data, how many parts I’m making, and look at scheduling and multiple data points coming directly from the machine. These types of solutions are of tremendous value, even from an operations standpoint. I now no longer have to be on the shop floor to understand what’s happening in my shop by using the data in the right way.”

CoroPlus Process Control goes a step further in measuring the health of an entire manufacturing process, Rizzie continued. “It can perform adaptive control and override the machine. If it detects a collision or a broken tool, it can automatically shut down the machine. It can issue a command to acquire a sister tool or redundant tool and restart manufacturing. And, it can assist with the unmanned machining—it adds an extra measure of security to the process.”

Additionally, Sandvik strives to “upskill” its employees to better equip them to support customers remotely, noted Annika Langeen, vice president of Americas marketing. “We have equipped our Sandvik Coromant Centers with the latest technology to enable remote support in customer projects and live virtual training classes,” she said. “With the latest audio and video technology, customers can view what’s happening inside and outside the machines in our Sandvik Coromant Centers and interact with our yellow coat experts in real time from whatever location they want. For many years, we have also offered an extensive e-learning program to provide customers, students and employees with metal cutting knowledge. Participants can take the training program and get certified from wherever they like, any time.”

Hybrid Work in the Future

Digital manufacturing is often touted as a worker recruiting and retention tool. IDC’s Paquin concurs.

“Hybrid/remote work can broaden a candidate pool for certain roles, and we hear consistently from manufacturers that it is the younger portion of their workforce that desires more flexibility and options around work models,” he noted. “For an industry that struggles to attract new talent, not adopting hybrid work models could make this even more of a challenge.”

The big challenge, noted Librestream’s Neagoy, “is simply understanding where a hybrid workplace can be applied. Eighty percent of the workforce is in the field, so creating hybrid workforces can be an overwhelming prospect. The recipe for success in implementing a hybrid workforce is to identify very clear business objectives. Have something that’s quantifiable and measurable, and start small. If you’ve got different functional areas that are essentially duplicates of one another, pick one and get to success with that and then apply what you learned across the whole organization.”

Note, too, that “there’s a weird duality with how people adapt to hybrid workforces,” Neagoy advised. “The people with the most knowledge about the business can be the ones who are least technologically adept. Let the experienced employees know that new hybrid technologies aren’t there to help them—they’re there to help others.”

While platforms and technologies that exist to make hybrid a reality transitioned during COVID, the problem now is “how to integrate them in a way that will be effective for each company’s needs,” Sciammarella observed. “Are the right networks and connectivity—i.e., 5G—present, and how can their security be ensured? This can be costly and will require careful thought as to how to incorporate these tools and platforms in the most economical way possible.

“MxD has always seen companies who are digitally enabled fare better when crises arise. The pandemic was no different,” he continued. “Organizations are on different paths to accomplish digital transformation—and those who were more advanced naturally could transition easily to hybrid practices in general.”

Ultimately, just because the tools are available to create a hybrid workforce, it’s really down to the culture of a given business and its willingness “to invest in meaningful change for its company to not only survive but to thrive. Honestly, the biggest challenge is culture change. In manufacturing, people are creatures of habit, and it is difficult to break out of that. The other big challenge is the financial costs of going digital to empower a hybrid workforce,” Sciammarella noted. “It is extremely hard for small businesses to evaluate what could bring the most return on investment when there is so much out there.”

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