We can easily picture the scene within industrial estates up and down the land: a large factory building, often with stylish office facilities housing management and central function teams.
The perception of the factory environment goes further, to paint a picture of shopfloor staff working in a frenetic and sometimes ‘dirty’ environment, while desk-based employees sit behind glass facades, bringing about a physical divide between the two.
In some cases, management staff sit in offices that look down over the factory, further embedding what could be seen as an ‘us and them’, hierarchical culture. But to what extent is this perception outdated and how is communications technology paving the way to breaking down those barriers?
In the factory of the future, will an ever-more connected workforce enjoy a more collaborative approach? And what will technology’s impact be on the flexibility, productivity and responsiveness not just of the workforce, but of the machines on the production line?
Here at Enreach, we’ve been working alongside many organisations across the sector who recognise the ever-growing need to deliver advanced capabilities, enhanced efficiencies and continued innovation – as well as ensuring high levels of staff engagement – if they’re going to have a chance at leading the way in modern manufacturing.
Overcoming the infrastructure hurdles
When it comes to the march of technology, more ‘traditional’ innovations have failed to break through the impervious physical infrastructure of older factories.
Vast open spaces, reinforced concrete flooring, the movement of large-scale machinery or cranes all present IT infrastructure aficionados with tension headaches when trying to retro-fit 21st century wiring and connectivity.
Common problems can include patchy Wi-Fi and deadspots, not to mention the restrictions on siting machinery that’s dependent on a network connection.
But now, the introduction of 5G mobile data transfer means that not only are there no longer physical barriers to deploying highly efficient connectivity at a site, but current ways of working will also be challenged.
Factory layout and design is a critical factor in a manufacturing business to ensure efficiency, safety and optimum productivity. However, although machinery is evolving to include new enhancements, the reliance on data connections means the physical positioning of equipment remains a limiting factor.
Add in the latest Internet of Things-enabled sensors to monitor performance and outputs, and your dependence on a stable, fast and accessible network is thrown into sharp focus.
When it comes to employees, those in the office may enjoy business-grade broadband at their desks or via Wi-Fi.
But it’s a different story for the shopfloor staff. Engagement with the company’s computer systems might be limited to a handful of terminals sited around the plant, positioned where there is a network connection point. This means access to and engagement with crucial internal communications or business networks for those employees is limited by its very nature.
So how can 5G help?
Don’t be fooled into thinking that 5G is simply 4G but faster. Although speeds are dramatically increased, the pervasive nature of the technology means it can penetrate further and navigate through more challenging building infrastructure. There is now a realistic contender for Wi-Fi.
What that means is that the physical location of machines and people is no longer the hurdle it used to be.
With a 5G-enabled sim card installed, CNC machines, Computer Aided Design, Computer Aided Manufacturing machines and more can be positioned perfectly to allow optimum efficiency of process flow in the factory, free of the shackles of a cabled network.
Uploading to and accessing ‘the cloud’, data is seamlessly shared between machines, responding to and acting autonomously to events and user-generated actions.
Cloud data from those machines is available to all, and live-time updates mean earlier critical interventions when something goes wrong. The faster and more stable network will allow machine inspection and repair to take place remotely via video call, using instructions and diagrams overlaid via augmented reality.
And to future-gaze for a moment, if the machine needs a spare part, then a connected 3D printer can have a replacement ready ahead of time.
The shopfloor is truly connected
With a robust data connection available to all, regardless of device, it means that shopfloor staff no longer have to rely on access to a fixed point terminal. Unless prohibited for commercial sensitivities, workers will be carrying smart phones with them as they carry out their work. With everyone on a 5G connection, suddenly their smart phone can provide access to data, networks and company communications via a simple, free and non-invasive app.
This universal access to systems and a futureproof IT infrastructure will begin to break down the barriers between the shopfloor and their office-based colleagues, and bring about a greater sense of connection with the company.
A closer connection with senior leaders
In multi-site organisations, access for employees to senior management might be restricted to infrequent physical company briefings or larger-scale team meetings.
It could be argued that this lack of access to and visibility of business leaders can result in a disconnect with the company vision, a distrust and an impact on productivity.
With universal access to stable and quality data connections, virtual meetings can be carried out anywhere, any time. The ease of video calls and their ability to enable quicker and more engaging conversations has been ably demonstrated during the global pandemic. Add in the possibility of multi-site meetings and presentations, along with meeting recordings to ensure no one is left out if they can’t all down tools at the same time and not only does this give senior leaders the opportunity for greater exposure with their remote teams and staff, but the wider company is opened up for everyone.
This decentralisation will make it easier for each employee, regardless of location and role, to be heard, and will bring about enhanced two-way communications for all.
Embracing the benefits
It’s easy to understand how continued technological innovation can lead to fears of a ‘rise of the machines’. Autonomous processes that were once reliant on human intervention, now controlled by computers, has naturally concerned many people as the fourth industrial revolution rolls on.
I think the opposite will be true. As we see universally compatible technology become further embedded, which is supported by a significantly strengthened mobile data network, we’ll see a rise of the people, empowered to operate more effectively and collaboratively.