How are Operations Challenges Shifting in the 21st Century

It’s January 2020 and we are sipping coffee at Starbucks, glad to be out of what those of us in Houston like to call “cold weather”. We might have opened up with some small talk about how the US federal site had just gotten hacked or about how awful the Australian bushfire season was this year.

After an appropriate amount of small talk, and maybe a refill of our americanos, we would start talking about the operational challenges you’ve been facing at your factories. We’d start discussing ways to prevent unnecessary equipment downtime and track your inventory better.

Now, in times of COVID-19, we’re meeting by Zoom call and talking about how to minimize your personnel’s risk of dying.

Companies need to keep running successfully despite changes such as social distancing.

Plant and Factory Workers are Essential Workers

When talking about essential workers, we often think about those we routinely see: the hospital staff and grocery store champions. And those guys are undoubtedly all heroes. Society would fall apart without them.

Society would also fall apart without the millions of workers it takes to keep the plants, factories, and other operations running that ensure our supply of essential products, utilities, and food.

Machines and processes are more automated than ever before, but there is still a human element needed in most workplaces. And we need to keep those workers as safe as possible. And companies need to keep running successfully despite changes such as social distancing.

What do Operations Look Like in Times of COVID-19?

Eventually, we are going to talk about how technology and automation are going to keep people safe and maximize operational efficiency and effectiveness.

But first, we need to look at what operations look like now. We need to look at the solutions that might have helped you at the beginning of 2020 and see what works now and what needs to adjust to this new reality.

So fire up your faithful coffee maker and pour yourself a mug. We’re going to talk about this.

1. Operations and Social Distancing

You might be facing situations where you are expected to operate with fewer employees or personnel that are more spread out. You might have some areas that you can’t monitor with reduced personnel. And you definitely will have operations and processes that you can’t keep running while maintaining the kind of social distancing recommended to minimize risk.

Good thing sensors can’t get COVID. Industrial IoT sensors can solve a lot of operation challenges resulting from slimmed-down teams or spaced-out teams. They can give you alerts on what’s happening in the obscure corners of the warehouse so you can react on time, every time. IIoT also allows you to get the kind of real-time data that lets you automate business processes as well. It’s a win-win for social distancing.

2. Personnel Tracking

Social distancing works when people are kept at least six feet apart. This means the factory floor needs to change a bit. The flow of personnel can be monitored remotely using IoT.

Proximity sensors and cameras can tell us how many people are in each area and where they are in relation to one another. Combine the use of these sensors with automated alerts and we can make sure people aren’t going places they shouldn’t be going.

Sensing technologies can also help us track human flow patterns by generating heatmaps of specific areas. Once you know the high-volume areas, where people tend to congregate, what time there are more people in specific areas, and how long they spend, you can plan your strategy to keep people as separate as possible.

Thermal imaging cameras tell us what people’s temperature is. Apps let us track where people have been recently, which can help trace the spread of COVID-19 and make sure people haven’t been exposed to an outbreak risk area.

Personnel and visitor monitoring are remote and preferably contactless. It’s automated. And it can save their lives. That didn’t use to be a selling point for us.

3. Digital, Contactless Communications

Paper is out…finally. We want to minimize any and all points of contact we can. Naturally, that means things like sign-in sheets and paper forms are out in favor of their electronic little brothers.

IoT-connected apps naturally allow us to communicate with each other without even having to see each other. That is one less person who has to be on the floor potentially getting exposed.

Sign-in sheets? Forget it. We’re automating the check-in process with tablet kiosks and visitor sign-in apps.

4. Process Monitoring

And once we’re talking about limiting the number of people in operation, let’s talk about automating processes so that they don’t require human physical intervention at all. That is often the point of automation, after all.

Or what about those areas that are no longer being monitored as closely because of reduced personnel? Sensors make sure everything is running smoothly; alert notifications pushed to your smartphone let you know when things aren’t. Instead of needing a human to physically monitor equipment or operations, you have technology. It lets you know faster, risks fewer people, and can even be integrated into solutions that immediately kick into gear fixing the problem before you would even have time to get someone there to check it out.

Humanity used to be afraid of automation turning into a Terminator-like apocalypse. Instead, automation is keeping the world running, when the humans can’t safely do it.

Digital Transformation Makes Post-COVID Operations a Reality

The beautiful thing about the automation solutions to any COVID-19-related challenges is that it isn’t just a Band-Aid you’ll throw away once the cut is healed.

The solutions that keep your operations running today will keep optimizing them for an eventual COVID-less future. This isn’t another coronavirus-related expense. This is a lifetime investment in your company.

Remember that meeting at Starbucks? All those operations improvements and benefits we were talking about? They are still very much a reality. We just have other priorities right now. Like our personnel’s wellbeing.

With the right solution, you will be able to address both issues.

2020 doesn’t have very many wins, so we might as well be positive about the ones we do have. And automation is a win. It always was a win and it is an even bigger one now.

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