by Dennis Donovan, Principal, WDGC

Much has been written about the varied impacts that COVID-19 is having on the office workplace. Far less has been publicized on how the pandemic will change workspace for industrial operations. Herein we offer observations on this dynamic, which manufacturing enterprises will need to consider for: (a) reconfiguring existing space; (b) retrofitting an available building; or (c) constructing a new plant.

Unlike the service sector, the preponderance of manufacturing jobs are on-site. Today, other than some remote monitoring and collaboration of sophisticated/machinery, the remote work does not have wide application in manufacturing. However that is changing as more machine monitoring can be accopmplised remotely (as discussed later in this blog).

Safeguarding employee health has always been important but has now become critical to the viability and hence success of manufacturing entities. Throughout the COVID period and post pandemic, workplace safety will embrace social distancing,  wearables (including hands free like finding parts and PPE to monitor employee health) , state of the art HVAC/ventilation systems, contact tracing, and adoption of nascent/new technologies.

Major corporations will possess the resources to both design and implement workplace health measures. The small to mid-size manufacturer will be more challenged. Before embarking on a series of actions it would be worthwhile to reach out to pertinent organizations for guidance/direction. These include:

  1. CDC/WHO have published recommendations for manufacturing compliance
  2. State and Federal OSHA (e.g., 03/20 Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19)
  3. International Facilities Management Association (IFMA)
  4. Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM)
  5. Trade Industry Associations
  6. Published papers by private firms (e.g., PWC, Nutec Group, and Accenture)
  7. Local Universities
  8. State and Local Economic Development Organizations
    • Many EDOs have established resource centers for businesses to access relative to responding to COVID
    • A company can save considerable time by first checking in with the appropriate EDO
    • We believe that nearly all EDOs should create a resource base (e.g., tools, data sources, advisory firms, best practices, webinars, etc.) as part of their business retention/expansion efforts

Among (this is just a sample) steps that manufacturers should consider are:

  1. Establish a risk mitigation plan
  2. Institute sanitation rules
  3. Invest in education for employees to ensure they know how to minimize the spread of this disease, including what to do if they are not feeling well?
  4. Ensure privacy protection, especially for PPE wearables and be transparent with employees in terms of why the data is needed, how it will be used, and safeguards to be taken to protect privacy
  5. Eliminate non-essential travel
  6. Ban or strictly control visitors to the factory floor
  7. Stager shifts
  8. Utilize flex time to the extent possible
  9. Increase physical space among workstations
  10. Use swipe cards for entry/exit
  11. Separate those entering and exiting the building
  12. Utilize touchless technologies
  13. Choose materials for hard surfaces that can withstand heavy cleaning
  14. Provide sneeze guards where possible
  15. Increase ventilation and pressurization from areas with filtered air to areas with unfiltered air
  16. Employ ultraviolet light to kill germs when workspaces are unoccupied
  17. Introduce non-touch body temperature detection
  18. Create 1-way routes within the plant
  19. Install more restrooms
  20. Provide opportunities to sanitize hands and offer hands free glove and mask dispensers
  21. Provide appropriate masks and gloves at no cost
  22. All doors on the factory floor should operate hands free

In addition there is an emerging trend, again enabled by new technology, that will allow for more remote workers in manufacturing. This embraces the concept of the “virtual shift”. The technology is often referred to as digital machine health. This allows for maintenance, reliability, and operations teams to remotely monitor machines’ health and take appropriate action as needed.

The technology exists to implement the above and other action steps to help minimize employee heath/safety in the manufacturing work environment. Today’s 4.9 G/LTE and the emerging 5-G industrial wireless networks are true enablers. In relying on automation to combat negative outfall from COVID (or other pandemics), give special attention to:

  1. Autonomous materials movement
  2. Repetitive task automation
  3. Predictive maintenance

Essentially the concept of smart factory or industry 4.0 applies here. This embodies such technologies as IoT, Robotics, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence. Adoption of this technologies will be key not just for COVID/Post COVID but to remain globally competitive.

Lastly in site selection, it will be important to locate in areas that have the telecom/ broadband infrastructure to allow for the introduction of these modern technologies. Also, in choosing a site/building the landlord or developer must be willing to incorporate the proper building design features at a reasonable cost.