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Today's Transforming Workforce Gets a Digital Boost

Digital tools for workforce help manufacturers tap into and transfer knowledge across the organization.

Getty Images Digitalworkflow
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There’s a bit of a twist in the use of technology on the plant floor as of late. While the focus to date has been on the digital transformation of equipment and other assets, manufacturers are now turning their attention to automating the flow of information in order to improve processes—with the ultimate goal of helping people. These processes are known as digital tools for workforce.

A look at the digital tools for workforce

For example, Pretium Packaging, a designer and manufacturer of packaging products for food and beverage, personal care, and medical and consumer industries, has manufacturing facilities across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Many of these plants were acquired, and therefore, Pretium didn’t have a standardized way to share process improvement best practices.

Similarly, Covestro, a manufacturer of high-tech polymer materials, needed a way to seamlessly implement processes in each plant across the globe, even though each facility may use a different system to track variations. A key factor of the disconnect in getting new processes effectively implemented across all its plants was an inability to transfer updated information during shift changeovers.

Meanwhile, J.M. Smucker Company was looking for a way to improve its operations’ accuracy and efficiency by effectively combining data from multiple production systems.

Though each example differs slightly, they are all trying to solve the same “people problem” as it relates to the workforce. Between the great resignation brought on by the pandemic and a skillset shortage, there is a need to equip people with tools that will drive operational efficiency and improve the employee experience. Digital tools for workforce will do just that.

“We had a customer that spent millions on equipment and now they are saying it’s time to invest in people,” says Allen Hackman, general manager and global head of the manufacturing industry vertical at ServiceNow, a cloud-based digital workflow platform. “Our customers are striving to improve capacity and productivity and retention. They are dealing with turnover and an aging workforce and they have a lot of manual processes on the shop floor, which means that many procedures are baked into Excel.”

Digital process tools

Hackman says he hears three things from ServiceNow customers. First, they want to remove paper processes from the factory floor. Second, they want to build knowledge into those processes, especially as people need to manage multiple jobs. And third, they want to onboard new people faster by capturing and transferring the knowledge of the retirees. “The key thing is that they’re losing people and they need to retain that knowledge.”

Lauren Dunford, co-founder and CEO of Guidewheel, agrees. “People have so much valuable information and knowledge and there is an important role [emerging] for getting information from their heads into a consistent and dependable system that can transition into a scalable system rather than ad hoc, one-off solving.”

To do that, manufacturers will need a plan to adopt digital tools for workforce. That's why the OpX Leadership Network is working on a roadmap for the Industry 4.0 digital transformation that addresses a range of tools—from wearables to QR codes to Andon displays—that will first and foremost get the right information to the right people at the right time.

Best practices

OpX doesn’t recommend specific toolsets, rather, the group focuses on best practices. “That could include checklists to ensure that operators are doing the right things at the right time,” says Bryan Griffen, senior director of Industry Services at PMMI, who leads the OpX effort. “These checklists could be integrated directly into the control of the process and the machine.”

Griffen said the group is still in the very early stages of developing this specific work product, with a second one kicking off this summer that will address hiring, onboarding, and retaining critical staff, including operators, maintenance and quality technicians, and control system engineers.  â€śA big part of this has to be the move to digital tools to aid employees in their jobs in order to help them feel like they are working in a modern facility and not something out of the dark ages,” Griffen explains.


Digital power to the people

For its part, Guidewheel’s FactoryOps platform delivers intuitive, out-of-the box workflows. It starts with a simple sensor that clips around the power cord of any type of equipment on the plant floor—regardless of the control system or the age of the machine—in order to pull information into the cloud in real time.  “It’s like a Fitbit for the machine,” Dunford says, explaining that it measures the power draw to easily spot microstops and differences in changeover or process time. As an always-on source of truth, the system is constantly working in the background to alert the right teammates immediately if there is a problem. “It is the heartbeat of the machine that you can then layer critical information on.”

Guidewheel's FactoryOpsGuidewheel's FactoryOps

That critical information—delivered in real time and in context—could include reasons for downtime, quality issues, actions taken on machine components, labor issues, etc. End users can customized the drop down menu to their own downtime codes. And using the FactoryOps web interface, which has a mobile component, a plant manager could wake up in the morning and pull up the status of a line to see if a machine is down and adjust the production schedule accordingly. 

Digital instincts

Pretium Packaging is using Guidewheel to replace that “gut feeling” people have used to determine what caused machine downtime with actual data-driven information that provides easy-to-understand information and escalates alerts to the proper people based on the problem the machine is having.  

“Before Guidewheel we had to physically go to every machine to figure out why it was down and document it,” says Steve Hernandez, a maintenance manager at Pretium. “Now we are able to react in a more timely manner…and our lives at Pretium have changed as we are now able to get alerts on our phones and react whether we are at home or at work.” In addition, the team can use the Guidewheel charts to see operating trends and take ownership of the machines. “Our team is more engaged and are generally concerned as to why [machines] are down,” he says.

Watch video   Watch this Take 5 for a quick recap of how digital workflow tools can transfer knowledge across the organization. 

With digital tools for workforce that encourage collaboration, this becomes possible. Indeed, having the ability to manage incidents is an important part of empowering operators in this digital-first world.

Digital platforms

ServiceNow recently released its Manufacturing Connected Workforce platform which provides maps and visual guides of a facility’s systems and processes, standard operating procedures to help ensure efficiency and compliance, and the ability to capture institutional knowledge on how to deliver best practices. “This was our entry into the factory floor,” Hackman says, “leveraging data models to give workers context to challenges.”

The ServiceNow platform covers four areas. The first is the standard work that happens every day, which is digitized into checklists of things that need to get done. If a worker doesn’t know how to complete the task on the checklist they can click on an instructional video to build knowledge into the procedure. The second piece is exception management, which gives operators the ability to record an incident that drove a specification. Third, if something is wrong, such as an out-of-place safety guard, a worker could trigger an alert that requests some action be taken. Finally, once tasks and workflows are recorded, users can plot trends that help determine why a failure on a machine happened at the time it did.

“The ultimate goal is to improve productivity in the factory; an impediment [to this] has been a lack of knowledge,” says Hackman. “We have a system of action. There are [other systems] that store data, and we sit across the top to be the system of engagement that workers interact with…to drive action. We make sure the task gets to the right person, ensure it gets done, and then learn from it.”


Changing of the guard

At Covestro, which has close to 17,000 employees, managing the shift operations and the shift changeovers require that all key information about the state of the plant systems and processes are evaluated and passed when the next shift arrives. That is often done with handwritten notes, phone calls, or Excel spreadsheets. The company was looking for a web-based tool that could interface with its SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and was adaptable to varying circumstances at different facilities. What they found was Shiftconnector from eschbach, an interactive shift log developed for the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. 

eschbach's Shiftconnectoreschbach's Shiftconnectoreschbach

According to eschbach officials, incidents at process plants are more likely to occur after handovers, often due to the lack of digitized documentation from a prior shift. Shiftconnector streamlines communication from a range of operational activities using e-signatures, cross-shift and cross-department task allocation, and the ability to document all shift operations in an auditable way.

Connecting workers

In September 2021, eschbach introduced Shiftconnector Go Mobile Rounds, an application that connects field workers with board operators for routine actions and compliance management. In a daily scenario using Shiftconnector Go Mobile Rounds, workers download a task list of specific actions and proceed to specified locations where sign-offs on the itemized actions occur. A QR code confirms the position and location of the worker. As the items on the task list are reviewed, should an anomaly be discovered, such as leakage or a pressure issue, the worker is able to record the adverse event (including photo documentation), which is immediately shared in the shift report via the Shiftconnector platform. The information is then delivered to those responsible for corrective action. Evaluation of the action is recorded to assure compliance. Via the Shiftconnector platform, this information is integrated with shift reporting to alleviate any misinformation or omissions during shift handovers, ensuring compliance, safety, and reliability.

“It enhances the full workflow beginning with scheduling the inspection, tracking in the field, and finally evaluation,” says Andreas Eschbach, founder and CEO of eschbach. “With mobile capabilities, communication with central operations is enhanced and paper documentation is eliminated resulting in better management of day-to-day plant operations and simpler execution for all involved.”


Uniting silos of information

GE Digital set out to solve the problem of disparate data that was causing headaches for its customer, the J.M. Smucker Company, as it relates to identifying and implementing specification changes. As a result of its efforts, GE Digital released its Proficy Orchestration Hub, providing out-of-the-box tools to unify manufacturing product information from disparate data systems.  According to the company, the software can transform and organize raw business-oriented information into production-ready formats and orchestrate application of the resulting information across factory floor systems.

GE Digital's Proficy Orchestration HubGE Digital's Proficy Orchestration HubGE Digital

For example, many manufacturers store quality data in one system, but put orders in an ERP, and manage recipe-related information in a PLM (product lifecycle management) system. These systems are often not connected, therefore someone has to look at all three to assess the impact on the factory floor. Furthermore, supply chain issues can cause production to be out of sync with the latest manufacturing product data, which could result in lower quality or more waste in operations. Proficy Orchestration Hub records, analyzes, and updates manufacturing product data in the plant; it also stores deviations and variances to provide visibility into changes. 

“Basically, it is making sure that the shop floor is operating off the right specs for a work order,” explains GE Digital’s Prasad Pai, senior product manager for Proficy Orchestration Hub. “And when I asked customers how often these changes happen, they say sometimes it happens every couple of months and sometimes it happens every three hours.”

And that is why having easy access to the right information via digital tools for workforce is important—especially when the workforce is changing as fast as the digitized data.

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