How to navigate the COVID manufacturing norm

Social distancing for protecting your employees, restarting operations and machines, catching up on supply chain gaps-does that sound familiar? Like society in general, manufacturers are experiencing many new challenges at a time when also facing reduced budgets. So how do you navigate the new manufacturing norm?

“Manufacturers must adapt to changes in conditions that affect both their employees and the way their organisation operates. So how do you implement social distancing in a factory without impairing productivity?” says Hajime Sugiyama of the Mitsubishi Electric Corporation.

What is the new manufacturing norm?

Starting with the individual we can use face guards and masks, and many industries already use personal protective equipment (PPE). This may be due to hygiene or clean environment standpoint as with foodstuffs, drugs, and sensitive electronics and semiconductors. However, the use of PPE is neither desirable nor practicable in all industries. For example, in hot or humid environments, wearing a mask may increase the risks of heat exhaustion, so it needs care in understanding each worker´s environment. Furthermore, screens between workers may not work due to space restrictions, safety precautions, or the need for interaction between operators.

Stepping back from the individual challenges, Sugiyama considers that “Many manufacturers are also focusing on social distancing through shift management. Achieving this requires balancing work shifts so that fewer people are working together at the same time. Although this may prevent a pandemic situation inside the factory, it presents other challenges”.

While balancing shift patterns provides factory managers with a level of operational redundancy, i.e., the suspension of one shift due to infection, means the second and/or third shifts can continue business as usual after the plant has had a thorough cleaning. But it is a natural consequence that fewer people working will lower productivity. So how do you counter that? One option is to find different ways of working.

Let your Cobot take the strain

One solution may be the increased use of industrial collaborative robots (cobots) like MELFA ASSISTA. These light devices are quick to deploy, human friendly and flexible enough to undertake a wide variety of tasks, and notably, you do not need to have extensive robotics expertise. They are also cost-effective, and their use of AI and advanced programming make implementation simpler than many people expect.

Remote is not just for homeworkers

Returning to full operations and restarting processes and lines often reveal problems not previously visible and creates a maintenance nightmare. Remote access is a key benefit for users of intelligent automation devices that contain extensive diagnostics for resolving maintenance issues. But are all automation devices not intelligent?

Sugiyama explains, “Advances in product technology are not limited to the function of the device but also the management of their operational life. Maintenance teams can remotely access maintenance and performance KPIs to reduce or anticipate possible issues. Such functions already exist in new generations of inverter drives and controllers, even if they are not currently accessed.”

It is also true that these comprehensive automation systems capture vast amounts of production data for providing alarms and analytics. Most functions can be remotely accessed via the HMI device on the shop floor. Access to this data may be over a wireless interface or even the more recent trend towards utilising Edge controllers.

As Sugiyama sums it up “A practical approach is critical. Sometimes the answer is as simple as a partition screen and at others, it is an investment in a cobot, but the watchwords are flexibility, scalability and results focus. So perhaps the new norm is reminding us to identify what is important.” Go here to download Sugiyama’s full article.



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