We can debate if the time should be now, in a few weeks or months from now, in slow and measured phases as recommended by health experts, or all at once, but it seems we are on a path to reopen the US economy. For manufacturing this presents a set of new challenges. The good news is that despite the obvious complexity, there are some factories up and running that can and should be used as models to emulate. There are also clear benefits emerging around required onsite use of PPE, social distancing, regular hand washing and technical automation that simply make sense regardless of what is being manufactured.
We also know that in an effort to bring workplaces back online, there will be a few transition periods. The first phase involves bringing employees back into workplace facilities, but lowering the number of people that congregate in any one place at one time and restricting movements to keep people apart. This will include monitoring areas that are considered hot spots such as public spaces, break rooms and cafeterias in an effort to keep people socially distanced. Follow-on phases will likely involve increased automation using thermal scanning, RFID, IoT sensors and robotics. The Sci-fi future often depicted in movies and TV shows, certainly just got a lot more real.
Foxconn, one of the largest electronics manufacturers globally and famous for making Apple’s iPhone, has begun making their own PPE. They have roughly one million employees and are now manufacturing two million face masks daily for use by their staff. Another innovative solution they have deployed is to affix QR codes to all cafeteria chairs so that as folks come in for lunch, they scan the chair they sit in and if someone contracts COVID-19, it becomes easier to do contact tracing in the workplace.
Here in North America, the Fiat Chrysler Automotive Group (FCA) has 57 million square feet of manufacturing floor space to manage and 47,000 employees. Beyond the basics like cleaning multiple times a day, sanitizing and installing more plexiglass barriers, the FCA has instituted additional measures to help ensure each employee is safe to return to work every day. They must take their own temperature two hours prior to arrival, fill out a self-questionnaire, and as a third layer of protection, the company has installed thermal cameras to check if self-reporting is accurate. FCA has introduced staggered start times and made it harder for large gatherings to occur by changing break times, who can take breaks when, and the length and time of day those breaks can occur. All of this is an effort to follow CDC, WHO and best practice guidelines from facilities in China and Italy who have already bent their own curve. The company mailed PPE, thermometers and instructions to all 47,000 employees in advance of reopening its plants.
As these companies get back to work, there will undoubtedly be some problems, adjustments to these new measures, and maybe more actions added to the list. Of course analyzing better and faster ways to perform work should be a priority using technology and analytics to measure the effectiveness of these new protocols. Beyond employee safety, manufacturing firms will likely find new efficiencies through automation that were simply never considered prior to this global reorientation.