What started last year as an emergency response to the world's personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical device shortage quickly turned into a validating event for how critical connected workers are to the future of manufacturing. Management teams had to work in concert with frontline workers to adapt operations and reconfigure entire production lines in record time to produce much-needed PPE, medical devices, supplies, and products.
The challenges and opportunities for medical device and diagnostics providers have only been amplified this year in the wake of President Joe Biden expanding the Defense Production Act (DPA) application to cover manufacturing of vaccine vials, syringes, and other components in addition to the production of PPE, testing, and medical equipment. Keeping pace requires manufacturers to bring together the physical and digital aspects of their production lines to create efficient and empowered connected workers.
The Drive Toward Data Democratization
The pandemic pushed many of the issues holding frontline workers back from being more productive to the forefront. The most frequent centered on how to provide these employees with access to more production data—and which production data to share.
Historically the most valuable data was aggregated, analyzed, and reported by analysts and provided to managers, directors, VPs, and C-level executives, not to production workers. COVID-19 changed all that. To adapt to fast-moving production plans, management teams began empowering employees on the shop floor by sharing quality data, such as scrap counts and first yield rates; production line’s performance data, including uptime, machine metrics, and analytics and audit data; and real-time data from production and process monitoring.
This shift toward data democratization has been at the center of transforming employees into connected workers with the insights and agility to get up and running quickly, as well as identify and troubleshoot potential problems before they impact production.
Enabling Connected Workers in Medical Product Manufacturing
While data democratization has become the cornerstone of what defines a connected worker, it is not a monolithic concept. Instead, there are a number of ways in which this has successfully been put into practice. Let’s examine the seven key strategies being implemented by those manufacturers who have successfully pivoted and expanded their businesses to meet rapid spikes in demand for medical products and components.
- Smarter, better sensors. Manufacturers have increased their purchases of smart machines that can report on production, utilization, wear, and energy use, among other metrics. These companies are also retrofitting their existing machinery with smart sensors that similarly provide valuable data for improving production efficiency and product quality. Two key benefits include the ability to utilize data for real-time production and process monitoring and the flexibility for some employees to work remotely, coming onsite on an exception basis as needed.
- Real-time analytics. Transitioning to a connected worker approach for smart manufacturing begins with reliable data that provides manufacturers with new, often unexpected insights into increasing production efficiency and quality. Notably, real-time analytics are going beyond gauging the current status to enabling predictive analysis for assessing risks to production and the impact on revenue. With the resulting, highly accurate sales and margin forecasts, manufacturers can further improve their financial visibility.
- Touchscreen-based shop floor interfaces. Workers on the shop floor need ready access to information from enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing systems to improve production efficiency. The newer class of intuitive touch-screen shop floor interfaces help to blur the line between workers and these systems by streamlining data access and real-time information collection and availability in order to improve quality and reduce costs. The new intuitive user interfaces also help digitize manufacturing operations and improve production efficiency.
- Digital workflows. Data access is critical, but too often information overload leads to delays in starting up new production runs. Modern shop floor interfaces guide workers through just the information they need to set up their stations, complete their tasks, and monitor and identify any potential issues in production or quality. The workflows may serve as a checklist for experienced employees or as on-the-job training for workers new to the task.
- Remote access. Remote access proved invaluable in 2020, and it will continue to be key to keeping supply chains, production scheduling, shipping, and customer service moving. Through remote access to ERP and manufacturing systems, employees in sales, accounting, and other back-office functions could continue to conduct business as usual. That realization has led many manufacturers to rethink onsite staffing policies and utilization of their facilities. Moreover, it became clear that many facilities did not need staff onsite to monitor machines and instead could manage multiple sites from a single control center for greater efficiency.
- Quoting and pricing. By enhancing the configure, price, quote (CPQ) process with visually compelling quotes of custom-configured medical products using 3D images, manufacturers are improving their price management and control across channels, increasing margins, and reducing order errors in the process. This results in faster time-to-market and the ability to preserve margins. As more manufacturers move into more digital channels in 2021, having a streamlined CPQ process will become a competitive advantage. Foundational to success with CPQ will be adopting design-to-manufacturing, which further accelerates time-to-market by speeding up new product development cycles, improving product quality, and increasing yield rates.
- Digital training tools. According to the World Economic Forum, digital training tools will reduce training time by as much as 75%, further increasing the expertise and knowledge of production team members across locations. At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a manufacturing worker shortage of more than 2 million workers by 2025. Therefore, medical device manufacturers need to create digital training programs to teach essential skills to workers or contractors replacing the many employees expected to retire in the next five years.
Connected workers are the future of medical device manufacturing, and it's important to always start with what's in it for them first. Doubling down on democratizing data, training, and development will provide workers with the skills and insights they need, contributing to greater manufacturing efficiency, improved quality, and ownership of outcomes. Therefore, looking for new ways to bring together the physical and digital aspects of connected workers' roles should be a priority among manufacturing firms aiming to grow their competitiveness today.