As manufacturers reopen their plants and bring furloughed employees back to work, they face two major challenges. Safety and public health now require extra distance between workers, which can mean fewer workers per shift. And the economic climate means manufacturers need to optimize productivity to compete and survive.
These challenges might seem to put companies in a double bind, but it’s possible to make factory floors safer for workers and more efficient by using a network of remote sensors and video cameras. These Internet of Things (IoT) devices can make it easier to implement some of the manufacturing safety recommendations from OSHA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At the same time, these tools can help reduce downtime, save money on reactive maintenance, and improve site security.
Creating Space and Avoiding Downtime
Because close contact raises the risk of spreading COVID-19, CDC and OSHA guidelines recommend at least six feet of space between workers. In many plants that may mean moving from a couple of large shifts to multiple staggered shifts, to reduce the number of people on-site at any given time.
Some companies are experimenting with wearables like wristbands and smart hard hats that alert workers when they’re too close to each other on the job. Stationery IoT tools can also help to reduce on-site crowding and headcount.
For example, rather than have employees moving around the plant during each shift to log equipment and storage temperatures, remote temperature sensors on each piece of equipment and in each cooler can allow plant managers to monitor conditions from their office on-site or remotely. That reduces the amount of people on the floor, and the amount of movement through the facility.
This kind of monitoring can also alert managers whenever a piece of equipment or a cold-storage unit starts operating outside of its ideal range. By detecting these kinds of changes early, before equipment malfunctions or fails, plant managers can prevent the kind of close contact that occurs when workers need to move in and out of often-cramped equipment areas to make repairs. Instead, managers can act on early alerts to schedule maintenance before there’s a disruption, to limit the number of people nearby and allow for cleaning before and after the repair.
There’s another safety benefit to preventing equipment failures and unplanned downtime. Even if a factory has carefully staggered its shifts to prevent crowding at entrances and exits, a sudden shutdown caused by equipment problems could cause workers to leave all at once, creating too-close contact on the way out. Or workers might cluster in the breakroom or meeting area while the problem is fixed—also creating unsafe conditions. Preventing breakdowns with sensor data can reduce opportunities for unsafe contact inside the plant.
The CDC and OSHA guidance also suggests remote monitoring of production lines to ensure that workers are maintaining the recommended six feet of distance from one another. By adding wireless video cameras to the IoT network, managers or designated employees can keep tabs on worker safety—and correct problems—in real time from any location via their phone, tablet, or computer.
Protecting Critical Workers and Enhancing Security
A safety recommendation from Magnet, Ohio’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, can also help plants avoid unplanned downtime. Magnet suggests taking extra safe-distancing precautions with workers whose illness would create a single point of failure in the plant. For example, if your production line can’t run without your lead electrician on-site, then that employee needs extra protection.
Wireless sensors connected to a secure IoT network can help provide an extra buffer zone around these employees. For example, if your key staffers have their own offices or dedicated workspaces, door sensors or motion and activity-detection sensors can alert them (and their managers) in real time if someone enters their restricted space. Because the sensor data is recorded, stored and displayed on a dashboard, it could also be used to verify that only key personnel have entered that space between shifts and cleanings.
Door sensors and cameras can enhance health and safety in other ways, too. Some facilities that have previously had all employees enter and exit through one set of doors are rerouting foot traffic to a one-way flow through their buildings. Adding and reconfiguring building access points reduces the risk of crowding, but it can increase security vulnerabilities. With remote tools monitoring door access and showing traffic at all entry points, plants can monitor their entrances remotely or with minimal on-site staff and no need to walk the property checking doors.
Zoning Plans for Infection Control and Extra Security
The fewer people who visit your facility, the fewer opportunities there are for your employees to be exposed to the coronavirus or other contagious illnesses. That’s why OSHA and the CDC recommend that only essential workers be allowed into manufacturing plants.
Inside large facilities, the same principle can be used to zone the physical plant for contagion control. By establishing zones for each group of workers (and by grouping workers into cohorts that always work the same shift), you can reduce the potential for the spread of contagion throughout the plant if one worker gets sick.
For example, you might have a cohort of equipment maintenance technicians that inspects key machinery each night before the first shift of the day. Their zone would be the production line area and the restrooms and breakrooms closest to the line. There’s no need for them to go into offices or conference rooms, so those would be in a separate zone. During the day, administrative staff would stay in its zone—the office area, meeting rooms and closest restrooms and breakrooms.
Setting up zones requires training, clear signage and monitoring, especially if your employees aren’t used to sticking to one part of the facility. Remote cameras and activity detection monitors can show when people are entering or leaving a zone and who’s in a particular zone at any time. That monitoring capability can also help with security to prevent or reduce the impact of break-ins.
The same tools that help manufacturers cope with new safety rules can deliver added benefits over the longer term. Adapting to the new normal in manufacturing is a challenge, but the result can be a safer workforce in a plant that operates more efficiently, protects its resources better and can recover from the downturn faster.
Ray Almgren is chief operating officer of Swift Sensors, a developer of cloud-based wireless sensor systems for industrial applications.