Why the Connected Worker is Key to Improving Automated Manufacturing

Dec. 28, 2023
Connected workers provide the critical human touch needed to supervise and complement automated processes through the use of wearables, augmented reality and mobile devices.

Connected workers are the human component within a sophisticated network of automated  machinery, ensuring that systems run smoothly and efficiently. They provide the insight and  oversight that machines alone cannot, adjusting operations in real-time based on data-driven  feedback. This symbiotic relationship between worker and machine is vital for smart factories to  remain adaptable and sustainable.

So, who are these newly developed professionals? A connected worker is a factory employee  equipped with digital tools to interact with and control automated systems. Their key  responsibilities include monitoring system performance, managing workflow adjustments and  providing on-the-spot problem-solving. 

The implementation of connected workers in modern factories has brought significant  improvements in operational efficiency and product quality. Factories that have embraced this  model report fewer errors, reduced downtime and a more engaged workforce. The success  stories underline the potential of connected workers to transform traditional manufacturing  environments into dynamic, responsive systems.

Training and skill development

Connected workers must possess a blend of traditional manufacturing skills and digital literacy.  They need to understand not only the mechanics of the machinery but also how to analyze and  interpret data. Equally important is their ability to interact with advanced technological interfaces that are central to modern automated systems.

As a result, they must be willing to update their skills regularly to keep pace with technological advances. Companies that foster a culture of lifelong learning are better positioned to capitalize on the benefits of factory automation.

To prepare workers for these evolving roles, training methodologies have become more  innovative, often employing virtual reality and simulation-based learning. These tools offer  hands-on experience in a controlled environment, enabling workers to master complex systems  without the risks associated with live operations. 

Proactive risk mitigation and problem-solving is critical when integrating connected workers into automated processes. Regular training, system audits and cross-functional collaboration are  key strategies to anticipate and address risks effectively. A proactive approach safeguards  operations and enhances the resilience of the entire production system.

The impact on production efficiency

The integration of connected workers into factory automation has led to quantifiable  improvements in productivity and efficiency: reduced cycle times, increased throughput and  lower defect rates are common indicators of success. These improvements impact both the  factory floor and the bottom line.

A cost-benefit analysis of adopting connected worker platforms often reveals a positive return  on investment (ROI). Initial costs associated with training and technology implementation are  generally offset by long-term gains in efficiency, reduction in waste and the minimization of  costly downtime. 

Siemens' factory in Amberg is often cited as one of the most advanced examples of a smart  factory. This facility utilizes connected workers extensively, integrating them into their advanced, automation-driven assembly line. At this smart factory, employees work hand-in-hand with a highly automated production line, equipped with sensors and devices that communicate in real-time, optimizing the manufacturing process. The result is a striking increase in efficiency and a reduction in errors.

General Motors has taken a proactive approach to integrating connected workers into their  operations, implementing wearable technology to improve efficiency and safety in its assembly  lines. Wearable technology aids in tracking their movements, ensuring precision and enhancing  safety protocols. 

Boeing has elevated the role of connected workers in aerospace manufacturing by integrating  augmented reality (AR) into its manufacturing processes. AR tools assist workers in visualizing  complex assemblies, reducing the likelihood of errors and improving the quality of the final  product.

Eric Whitley has written on various manufacturing topics and directed the Total Productive Maintenance effort at Autoliv ASP. He has also been involved with the management certification programs at The Ohio State University, where he served as an adjunct faculty member.  He is currently the director of smart manufacturing at L2L, a supplier of connected worker platform software.