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How Industrial IoT is helping solve complex workforce problems
Sachin Kotasthane Senior Solution Director, IoT WoRKS | September 10, 2020
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Co-authored by: Jayesh Bachhav

In his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the historian Yuval Noah Harari highlights the complex challenges mankind will face on account of technological challenges intertwined with issues such as nationalism, religion, culture, and calamities. In the current industrial world hit by a worldwide pandemic, we see this complexity translate in technology, systems, organizations, and at the workplace.

While in my previous article, Humane IIoT, I discussed the people-centric strategies that enterprises need to adopt while onboarding IoT initiatives of industrial IoT in the workforce, in this article, I will share thoughts on how new-age technologies such as AI, ML, and big data, and of course, industrial IoT, can be used for effective management of complex workforce problems in a factory, thereby changing the way people work and interact, especially in this COVID-stricken world.

New-age technologies like AI, ML, and big data can be used for effective management of complex workforce problems in a factory, thereby changing the way people work and interact - especially in this Covid stricken world.

Workforce related problems in production can be categorized into:

  1. Time complexity
  2. Effort complexity
  3. Behavioral complexity

Problems categorized in either of the above have a significant impact on the workforce, resulting in a detrimental effect on the outcome—of the product or the organization. The complexity of these problems can be attributed to the fact that the workforce solutions to such issues cannot be found using just engineering or technology fixes as there is no single root-cause, rather, a combination of factors and scenarios. Let us, therefore, explore a few and seek probable workforce solutions.

workforce solutions

Figure 1: Workforce Challenges and Proposed Strategies in Production

  1. Addressing Time Complexity

    Any workforce-related issue that has a detrimental effect on the operational time, due to contributing factors from different factory systems and processes, can be classified as a time complex problem.

    Though classical paper-based schedules, lists, and punch sheets have largely been replaced with IT-systems such as MES, APS, and SRM, the increasing demands for flexibility in manufacturing operations and trends such as batch-size-one, warrant the need for new methodologies to solve these complex problems.

    • Worker attendance

      Anyone who has experienced, at close quarters, a typical day in the life of a factory supervisor, will be conversant with the anxiety that comes just before the start of a production shift. Not knowing who will report absent, until just before the shift starts, is one complex issue every line manager would want to get addressed. While planned absenteeism can be handled to some degree, it is the last-minute sick or emergency-pager text messages, or the transport delays, that make the planning of daily production complex.

      What if there were a solution to get the count that is almost close to the confirmed hands for the shift, an hour or half, at the least, in advance? It turns out that organizations are experimenting with a combination of GPS, RFID, and employee tracking that interacts with resource planning systems, trying to automate the shift planning activity.

      While some legal and privacy issues still need to be addressed, it would not be long before we see people being assigned to workplaces, even before they enter the factory floor.

      During this course of time, while making sure every line manager has accurate information about the confirmed hands for the shift, it is also equally important that health and well-being of employees is monitored during this pandemic time. Use of technologies such as radar, millimeter wave sensors, etc., would ensure the live tracking of workers around the shop-floor and make sure that social distancing norms are well-observed.

    • Resource mapping

      While resource skill-mapping and certification are mostly HR function prerogatives, not having the right resource at the workstation during exigencies such as absenteeism or extra workload is a complex problem. Precious time is lost in locating such resources, or worst still, millions spent in overtime.

      What if there were a tool that analyzed the current workload for a resource with the identified skillset code(s) and gave an accurate estimate of the resource’s availability? This could further be used by shop managers to plan manpower for a shift, keeping them as lean as possible.

      Today, IT teams of OEMs are seen working with software vendors to build such analytical tools that consume data from disparate systems—such as production work orders from MES and swiping details from time systems—to create real-time job profiles. These results are fed to the HR systems to give managers the insights needed to make resource decisions within minutes.

  2. Addressing Effort Complexity

    Just as time complexities result in increased  production time, problems in this category result in an increase in effort by the workforce to complete the same quantity of work. As the effort required is proportionate to the fatigue and long-term well-being of the workforce, seeking workforce solutions to reduce effort would be appreciated. Complexity arises when organizations try to create a method out-of-madness from a variety of factors such as changing workforce profiles, production sequences, logistical and process constraints, and demand fluctuations.

    Thankfully, solutions for this category of problems can be found in new technologies that augment existing systems to get insights and predictions, the results of which can reduce the efforts, thereby channelizing it more productively. Add to this, the demand fluctuations in the current pandemic, having a real-time operational visibility, coupled with advanced analytics, will ensure meeting shift production targets.

    • Intelligent exoskeletons

      Exoskeletons, as we know, are powered bodysuits designed to safeguard and support the user in performing tasks, while increasing overall human efficiency to do the respective tasks. These are deployed in strain-inducing postures or to lift objects that would otherwise be tiring after a few repetitions. Exoskeletons are the new-age answer to reducing user fatigue in areas requiring human skill and dexterity, which otherwise would require a complex robot and cost a bomb.

      However, the complexity that mars exoskeleton users is making the same suit adaptable for a variety of postures, user body types, and jobs at the same workstation. It would help if the exoskeleton could sense the user, set the posture, and adapt itself to the next operation automatically.

      Taking a leaf out of Marvel’s Iron Man, who uses a suit that complements his posture that is controlled by JARVIS, manufacturers can now hope to create intelligent exoskeletons that are always connected to factory systems and user profiles. These suits will adapt and respond to assistive needs, without the need for any intervention, thereby freeing its user to work and focus completely on the main job at hand.

      Given the ongoing COVID situation, it would make the life of workers and the management safe if these suits are equipped with sensors and technologies such as radar/millimeter wave to help observe social distancing, body-temperature measuring, etc.

    • Highlighting likely deviations

      The world over, quality teams on factory floors work with checklists that the quality inspector verifies for every product that comes at the inspection station. While this repetitive task is best suited for robots, when humans execute such repetitive tasks, especially those that involve using visual, audio, touch, and olfactory senses, mistakes and misses are bound to occur. This results in costly reworks and recalls.

      Manufacturers have tried to address this complexity by carrying out rotation of manpower. But this, too, has met with limited success, given the available manpower and ever-increasing workloads.

      Fortunately, predictive quality integrated with feed-forwards techniques and some smart tracking with visuals can be used to highlight the area or zone on the product that is prone to quality slips based on data captured from previous operations. The inspector can then be guided to pay more attention to these areas in the checklist.

  3. Addressing Behavioral Complexity

    Problems of this category usually manifest as a quality issue, but the root cause can often be traced to the workforce behavior or profile. Traditionally, organizations have addressed such problems through experienced supervisors, who as people managers were expected to read these signs, anticipate and align the manpower.

    However, with constantly changing manpower and product variants, these are now complex new-age problems requiring new-age solutions.

    • Heat-mapping workload

      Time and motion studies at the workplace map the user movements around the machine with the time each activity takes for completion, matching the available cycle-time, either by work distribution or by increasing the manpower at that station. Time-consuming and cumbersome as it is, the complexity increases when workload balancing is to be done for teams working on a single product at the workstation. Movements of multiple resources during different sequences are difficult to track, and the different users cannot be expected to follow the same footsteps every time.

      Solving this issue needs a solution that will monitor human motion unobtrusively, link those to the product work content at the workstation, generate recommendations to balance the workload and even out the ‘congestion.’ New industrial applications such as short-range radar and visual feeds can be used to create heat maps of the workforce as they work on the product. This can be superimposed on the digital twin of the process to identify the zone where there is ‘congestion.’ This can be fed to the line-planning function to implement corrective measures such as work distribution or partial outsourcing of the operation.

    • Aging workforce (loss of tribal knowledge)

      With new technology coming to the shop-floor, skills of the current workforce get outdated quickly. Also, with any new hire comes the critical task of training and knowledge sharing from experienced hands. As organizations already face a shortage of manpower, releasing more hands to impart training to a larger workforce audience, possibly at different locations, becomes an even more daunting task.

      Fully realizing the difficulties and reluctance to document, organizations are increasingly adopting AR-based workforce trainings that map to relevant learning and memory needs. These AR solutions capture the minutest of the actions executed by the expert on the shop-floor and can be played back by the novice in-situ as a step-by-step guide. Such tools simplify the knowledge transfer process and also increase worker productivity while reducing costs.

      Further, in extraordinary situations such  as the one we face at present, technologies such as AR offer solutions for effective and personalized support to field personnel, without the need to fly in specialists at multiple sites. This helps keep them safe, and accessible, still.

The futuristic organizations require continuous data insights, augmentation of existing systems and security concerns addressed for the future workforce.

Key takeaways and Actionable Insights

The shape of the future workforce will be the result of complex, changing, and competing forces. Technology, globalization, demographics, social values, and the changing personal expectations of the workforce will continue to transform and disrupt the way businesses operate, increasing the complexity and radically changing where, and when of future workforce, and how work is done. While the need to constantly reskill and upskill the workforce will be humongous, using new-age techniques and technologies to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the existing workforce will come to the spotlight.

IIoT Workforce

Figure 2: The Future IIoT Workforce

Organizations will increasingly be required to:

  1. Deploy data farming to dive deep and extract vast amounts of information and process insights embedded in production systems. Tapping into large reservoirs of ‘tribal knowledge’ and digitizing it for ingestion to data lakes is another task that organizations will have to consider.
  2. Augment existing operations systems such as SCADA, DCS, MES, CMMS with new technology digital platforms, AI, AR/VR, big data, and machine learning to underpin and grow the world of work. While there will be no dearth of resources in one or more of the new technologies, organizations will need to ‘acqui-hire’ talent and intellectual property using a specialist, to integrate with existing systems and gain meaningful actionable insights.
  3. Address privacy and data security concerns of the workforce, through the smart use of technologies such as radar and video feeds.

Nonetheless, digital enablement will need to be optimally used to tackle the new normal that the COVID pandemic has set forth in manufacturing—fluctuating demands, modular and flexible assembly lines, reduced workforce, etc.