Social distancing in the factory

We live in strange times, for many of us office bound workers staying home for the immediate future, it is easy to follow social distancing rules with a computer and desk in our lounge or kitchen. For others in industry though, it’s a bit more complex, after all, you can’t build a car from your kitchen!

This is the sentiment held by many manufacturers, who very recently will be stepping foot once again on the factory floor as restrictions ease slightly. With some facilities seeing hundreds of employees working 10 hour shifts daily, adhering to social distancing rules can be very complicated, steps must be implemented to keep these workers safe.

The key for manufacturers is to act now. There are simple changes that can be implemented right away, most of which we should all be practicing in our daily lives already. First and foremost, employees should stay more than two metres apart wherever possible, when it isn’t, the correct personal protective equipment (PPE) should always be worn. Non-critical operations should be rescheduled to off-peak times and shifts can be staggered to ensure the lowest possible population in the facility at any one time.

These implementations are a good start but what about the future, will technology be deployed to ensure the safe running of production facilities? The tech is plentiful in the sector, it’s just a case of adapting it to meet the new norm needs!

The industrial sector has been making tremendous leaps in remote assistance working. Augmented reality has been an increasingly important technology for the sector. Take the Vuforia Expert Capture from PTC. A solution used to close the skills gap, save time and keep workers safe. Safety warnings appear as soon as they are relevant, whether that is being too close to a moving part or not wearing the correct PPE. Whilst this warning system might be an over-engineered solution to general manufacturing social distancing, the technology provides remote assistance to customers who are unable to get an engineer on-site. If living with Covid-19 continues for a long time, we could see remote assistance being the new normal when it comes to on-site maintenance.

Could Augmented Reality be the key for ensuring factory floors keep safe in the quarantine? It is hard to image something this technologically advanced being deployed in that way. But, maybe  something more low-tech could be used?

When on the court, professional players wear sensors to track the speed and movement of elite sports stars. This same technology is being deployed to the factory floor. Designed by Munich-based start-up Kinexon, when two workers with sensors get too close, they emit a warning and record how long the contact lasted for. This technology comes at a time where facility owners are rushing to develop tools or applications that monitor workers and ensure their safety. Much like the trialed Coronavirus app in the Isle of Wight, the technology is able to track workers who have been infected and minimalise spread.

Being able to offer support remotely and monitor workers through digital technology is just one small element of the ‘Smart Factory’. Digital technologies that have been driving change within manufacturing and may very well drive how the factory floor handles Covid-19 should this situation continue. Of course, deploying digital technology is a large investment for any facility, it is likely this wouldn’t come naturally, rather as part of a regulatory or legislative change as a result of living with the Coronavirus for a long time.

In the meantime, there are low-tech low-investment options available for the factory floor. As this situation develops the technology is already developing with it. Take 5G for example, making its way into the industrial sector, 5G enabled sensors throughout a plant would allow tracking of everything within a factory from products, to pallets, to machinery and, of course, people.

Whatever happens with Covid-19, manufacturing will continue to adapt to meet all challenges.

Whether you are working from home or heading back to work, stay safe!

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