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Manufacturing Labor Shortages Is the New Normal

Here are three areas in which the Internet of Things can help.
By Ray Almgren

Worker Instruction and Training
Wireless equipment sensor data can help experienced workers train new personnel on equipment. For example, someone who has been working with a piece of equipment for years may be able to detect subtle changes in sound that could indicate a potential problem. If that worker is approaching retirement age, his or her knowledge could be lost since new workers would lack that skill set. With sensor data, the experienced worker could show new employees visual cues that correlate with his or her experience-based knowledge, in order to help prevent unplanned downtime.

IoT-connected equipment can also be used to create a "digital twin" of a production line or piece of equipment that workers can experience by wearing an augmented reality (AR) headset. This setup lets trainees virtually experience the real-world setting in which they will work, without the risk of production errors and—in the case of high-risk work—the risk of injuries that could sideline those employees. It also enables one experienced worker or manager to train multiple workers in detail without reducing the quality of training.

For workers on the job, digital instructions with real-time data from the plant's IoT network can feed them the information they need, exactly when they need it. This can make workers more productive by reducing the amount of time they need to spend looking for instructions and data. Moreover, real-time information and instructions can reduce errors that affect quality and uptime.

Enhanced Worker Safety
On-the-job injuries and illnesses led to at least 118,000 days away from work for employees of U.S. manufacturing companies in 2018. An IoT that includes wireless sensors, motion detectors and video monitors could help workers stay safe and reduce workdays lost to injury. For example, wireless IoT sensors that monitor temperature and vibration levels can generate alerts if there's a potential safety problem with equipment or ambient temperatures, enabling workers to clear the area. Air-quality sensors, meanwhile, can report unsafe levels of chemicals before workers would be exposed.

Location sensors and motion detectors can alert personnel to the approach of heavy equipment as they move through a warehouse or plant. Wearable sensors can alert managers if a worker falls, overheats or moves into an unsafe area of the plant. Wearable location sensors can also help track employees in the event of an onsite emergency, so as to make sure everyone is accounted for.

Because the skills gap in manufacturing is a fact of life now and for the near term, it's important to rethink what workers on the factory floor need to do and how they need to do it. By automating equipment data collection, analysis and display, a network of wireless sensors can enable efficiency gains, streamline training and workflows, and reduce time lost to workplace injuries. Together, these improvements can help manufacturers make the most of the workers they have and continue to grow.

Ray Almgren is the chief operating officer at Swift Sensors, a developer of cloud-based wireless sensor systems for industrial applications. Prior to his role at Swift Sensors, Ray was the VP of marketing at National Instruments. Ray received his BS degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. He is the founder and a current board member of FIRST in Texas, as well as a member of the National FIRST Executive Advisory Board, and has served on several engineering advisory boards, including The University of Texas at Austin, Southern Methodist University and Tufts University.

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