The Era of Remote Manufacturing Operations 

Manufacturing is a physical industry. Without workers on-site, no manufacturing. 

For decades, this has been conventional wisdom. The shutdown of the manufacturing sector following the COVID-19 pandemic, however, showed us that manufacturing is better suited for remote work than anyone thought. A mix of technological maturity, digital savvy, and a whole lot of experimentation has shown that manufacturing is, in fact, well suited to remote operations

So much so that Gartner now predicts that, by 2024, 50% of factory work will be done remotely. 

In this post, we put together our best insights from the manufacturers we work with to introduce you to the different types of remote work in manufacturing.

Our goal is to give you a broader perspective on remote operations so that you can develop core capabilities and use-cases in your organization. 

Types of Remote Operations

Some manufacturing work has always been remote. But it’s now apparent just how many tasks can be capably done off-site. 

So it’s worth reviewing the different kinds of remote work that are available to manufacturers today. 

Remote Operations by Job Type

Engineers – Engineers have historically lived with their processes. Process improvements are based on observations, and historically the best way to do this was to “go to gemba” and observe. So manufacturers put a resource on a line to record data. 

We’ve seen, however, that this level of in person immersion isn’t always necessary. With better access to performance data, engineers can assess process performance without seeing lines function first-hand. Further, some of our customers have allowed engineers to build and modify applications remotely. This means that engineers are continuing their continuous improvement activities off-site.

Management and shift scheduling – While plants will always need some level of supervision, the more available data is, the less need there is to be on site. We’ve seen that moving management and production schedulers off-site while keeping them in lock-step with production. Standard collaboration tools have made it possible to ensure business continuity while reducing “boots on the ground” in the plant. 

Operators – At the extreme end of the spectrum, some firms have experimented with distributed forms of production. Here, they use digital application platforms to send work instructions to operators. Operators receive and send finished goods through a currier. We saw this happen with good success immediately following lockdowns, and it’s an operational model with immense potential. This type of harmonization across a distributed workforce makes remote manufacturing a reality.

More frequently, manufacturers are simply running production with fewer operators in the plant.

Remote Operations by Use-Case

“Remote operations” in manufacturing is increasingly being used as a shorthand for the remote monitoring of assets. This is doing remote operations a disservice. Indeed, leading analysts argue that remote work is forcing a shift from a focus on “things” to a focus on expertise. 

In reality, there’s a variety of types of remote work.

Training

Training is traditionally done with the “buddy system.” New hires shadow an experienced worker and learn through the relationship. With training applications, new hires can get up to speed on new processes without setting foot in the factory–or without needing another human standing next to them.

This works in practice.

 “We normally have peer training,” Audra Kirkland, Head of Digital Manufacturing at Terex Corporation, described of how remote training has changed her operations. Now Terex is testing digital training applications that can be practiced remotely. “We’re moving through a guided work approach where we’re having people learn on the job as they’re doing the work, but through a guided process without a human having to be right next to them. It’s been eye-opening how we can use technology to limit exposure in the future now that we know what the future may hold.” 

Process Design

Some amount of physical process configuration is always necessary. But our customers have moved some of their engineers remote, tackling process design and improvement off-site while a small team makes physical adjustments in-plant. 

This is particularly true with no code development. Many of our customers had their engineers making process improvements in Tulip’s platform remotely, while production crews provided feedback and worked the applications. Together, they were able to stand-up new  solutions with a fraction of staff on site. 

Collaboration

Some of our customers have found ways to replicate in-person collaboration with digital tools. One group used video conferencing to diagnose an equipment failure remotely, with an operation calling to an engineering specialist off-site.

Ryanne Harms, VP of People Operations at Piaggio Fast Forward (PFF), noted her team found ways to make remote collaboration work. “Not everyone’s back on site. We had some of our [remote] engineers working with production teams and supervisors on the line,” she said of her team’s remote strategy. Imagine “Zooming in the VP of Engineering trying to troubleshoot something on the line.”

Equipment and Asset Monitoring  

With connected machines and equipment, there’s less of a need to have maintenance staff on-site. Sensors can monitor asset status and health and real-time, letting teams send technicians in only when necessary.

Factors to consider

1. Can you access your data? 

In order for most forms of remote manufacturing to work, teams need to be able to access production data. If you don’t have remotely accessible data, then you don’t have real-time visibility into your data. That means needing to put bodies in the plant to observe in person. If you’re interested in expanding your remote operations, real-time, openly accessible data is a good place to start. 

2. How will teams collaborate?

Most organizations have a solid stack of conferencing and collaboration tools. Between Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Slack, and G-Suite, organizations have most of what they need to keep their hybrid workforce engaged. 

But what about when it comes to other forms of collaboration? Are you set up to ensure continuity in training, maintenance, and scheduling remotely? 

3. What capabilities would you need to increase your workforce’s effectiveness? 

While most organizations can expand their remote work with tools they use today, for most groups, new tech can go a long way. 

The best question to ask here is, “What would help my workers work more effectively?” That question should point you to a set of capabilities, which will help you figure out which technology is actually necessary. 

Towards a Hybrid Workforce

If we’ve learned anything in the last six months, it’s that remote work is more possible for manufacturing than anyone anticipated. Whether or not the industry returns to a fully-present workforce is an open question.

What isn’t in question is that a hybrid workforce works for manufacturing. And the organizations who get hybrid operations right have a huge competitive advantage. 

If you’re interested in how Tulip can power your hybrid workforce, get in touch