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Mar 21, 2022 Philip Ednie

The Importance of Remote Collaboration on the Factory Floor

How does a factory worker troubleshoot a problem with complex production machinery? With help from coworkers, supervisors and experts, of course, but sometimes it takes time to locate them. If the machinery expert is in another location, time zone or country, there’s no chance of face-to-face communications, which could mean the machine is down for hours or even days. This is why remote collaboration capabilities are so important.

How Did Remote Collaboration Systems Come To Life?

In the manufacturing world, remote collaboration means getting problem-solving assistance the moment it's needed from an engineer or specialist who is not physically present. Augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR) are often touted as the answer to remote collaboration needs. They are indeed very powerful tools for remote assistance, but the technology is expensive and not currently scalable. 

The reality is, you'll often see production using Whatsapp and similar tools to reach out for help with what they're dealing with. The idea is to find a way to use pre-existing & simple-to-use technology to make the lives of plant workers easier and have a direct impact on the plant's performance. However, most instant communication software on the market aren't built with manufacturing in mind, aren't secure, and represent an additional complex tool frontline workers must use to perform their job.

For example, at Bosch Power Tools, frontline workers used WhatsApp to collaborate. This caused issues for their IT department as the app, designed for everyday communications between friends and family, didn't meet security standards. With so much precious information shared between employees, it's essential to ensure it doesn't get compromised. In addition, WhatsApp did not integrate directly with other solutions used on the plant floor, which created many inefficiencies and loss of knowledge.

"We previously used WhatsApp for discussions on technical issues until it was no longer allowed for data privacy compliance reasons. That meant communication between shifts temporarily went back to logbooks—fully analog in paper form! This created significant issues as photo or video documentation was no longer an option."

- Law Boon Wah, Senior Manager of Engineering, Bosch Malaysia

Why is Remote Collaboration Valuable?

Remote assistance benefits manufacturers in four ways. These are:

Faster Communication

Instant messaging capabilities get the word out to technical or process specialists faster than email. It’s also easier to message than call, especially when factory workers are in a different time zone or country.

Remote collaboration allows faster communication between manufacturing employees.

Video lets factory workers explain the problem without the specialists physically present. Sometimes this is all that’s needed for the operator or maintenance worker to diagnose what’s wrong and explain a solution, and it’s accomplished much faster than having to wait for a specialist to show up.

Easier Problem-Solving

Access to experts is essential for a remote troubleshooting service regardless of where they are. Rather than debating what might be needed and finding someone who has dealt with something similar, remote collaboration tools connect workers with the right collaborator.

Reduced Downtime

Minor problems can result in extended downtime if no one knows the fix—especially if they arise out of office hours. Remote assistance and collaboration with experts lead to faster solutions, which get production back up and running in less time.

Increased Employee Engagement, Enablement & Empowerment

In the past, it was difficult for factory workers to ask questions and raise issues simply because they didn’t have the communication tools. As a result, it was often easier to live with recurring problems rather than track down the person who could help solve them.

Instant messaging changes that. It’s not a new tool because factory workers already use it every day, which means it’s a capability they’ll take too quickly. They’ll see how this remote assist / quick assist tool helps them solve problems faster, and they’ll use it more and more. As that happens, they’ll become far more engaged in what they are doing and be empowered to take more ownership over the machines they run.

Remote Assistance in Action on the Factory Floor

Here’s an example of how remote assist works. A night-shift factory worker is having a problem with a machine. She uses the instant chat function to message the day-shift technician. To explain the issue, she adds some pictures of what she’s dealing with.

The technician reads the message but needs to see exactly what’s happening. Rather than waiting for him to arrive, the worker places a remote assist call. Using the camera on a tablet, she shares her screen so he can see the problem.

Remote collaboration in action on the factory floor

This is often all it takes to solve an issue, but what if help is needed from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or supplier who built the machine? In this case, the technician sends a call link to a support specialist there. They can join the call and see the problem without needing logins to the platform used by the operator. Using their expert knowledge, they can take the technician and the factory worker through the steps to fix the problem—it’s fast and easy.

A further benefit that more complete Connected Worker platforms can provide is the ability to record the call and add it to a troubleshoot note. This is available to other factory workers, so it will be resolved even faster if the problem comes up again on a different shift or machine. This is a benefit standalone AR/VR tools lack—a remote assistance solution is only as robust as the back-end system it connects to.

What to Look For in a Remote Collaboration Platform

An effective remote collaboration tool incorporates the following capabilities:

  • Direct and Group Messaging
  • File Sharing
  • Video Chat
  • Conversion of Conversations Into Documented Troubleshoots
  • Message Status
  • Integration With Other Factory Tools
  • External Communications
  • Security

Direct and group messagingDirect and Group Messaging

This section might seem obvious, but it's the foundation of any remote collaboration platform, so we want to go over it quickly. Having the ability to send direct messages to specific contributors is where troubleshooting starts—you'd be surprised at how many questions can be answered with a few short text messages. Also, involving multiple people in a conversation at once is sometimes necessary, so you want a solution that allows you to start and participate in group chats.

File sharingFile Sharing

The files to be shared are pictures and videos. These convey far more information than text, making them essential for effective communication and problem-solving. The ability to take pictures, record videos, and share them via chat is key.

Video chatVideo Chat

AR and VR continue their evolution as means of letting a remote viewer see and understand what’s happening, but they’re not yet fully effective. Bulky headsets and high costs make them impractical as remote troubleshooting tools. Video chat, however, is a mature technology that’s easy to use. They enable instant communications between factory workers and specialists to advance video recordings that facilitate remote collaboration.

Convert Conversations Into Documented TroubleshootsConvert Conversations Into Documented Troubleshoots

Taking notes during a chat can be distracting. Having the ability to convert a conversation into a documented troubleshoot using a standardised problem-solution template is crucial. This helps other workers in other locations and on different shifts when they encounter similar problems.

Documented troubleshoots support continuous improvement efforts like 5 Whys and root cause analysis. They also help maintenance departments implement solutions that underpin the factory’s efficiency.

Message statusMessage Status

With message status notifications factory workers can know if their help requests have been received, so they are not left waiting and hoping that someone gets back to them. If the intended recipient doesn’t get the message, they know to reach out to other supervisors, maintenance technicians, etc.

Integrates With Other Factory Floor ToolsIntegrates With Other Factory Floor Tools

In factories without good communication tools for those on “the front line,” workers use their initiative and adopt tools from their personal lives. These ad hoc solutions post a security risk to the business, don’t provide factory-wide communication and don’t integrate with the many other software products making their way onto factory floors.

In some factories navigating the many tools provided can be a challenge. An instant communication platform that integrates with the systems you already have in places such as CMMS and ERP platforms, simplifies things for your frontline workforce. As an additional benefit, it prevents the formation of silos along department lines and at worker-management levels.

External communicationsExternal Communications

Instant communication with coworkers will often lead to quick resolution of a problem, but sometimes the best source of help is outside the company. This is often the case when machinery doesn’t behave in the expected way and maintenance, or other helpers aren’t sure what to do. Having a direct communication channel with OEMs or equipment suppliers that allows chatting and video sharing leads to rapid problem-solving and removes organisational barriers.

SecuritySecurity

Most businesses, especially the IT functions, are acutely aware of the importance of network security. When using technology, there is always a concern about the security of sharing between employees, factories and even businesses. This is especially true as workers turn towards social messaging apps to discuss factory issues. It’s vital to use solutions designed to provide the high levels of security companies expect while still facilitating instant communications as and when needed.

Adapting to a New Global Reality

Unplanned downtime of production machinery is expensive, disrupts schedules and leads to lower productivity, revenue and unhappy customers. One of the issues is that it’s often hard for factory workers to find the problem-solving, troubleshooting support they need in time to get machines running and avoid micro stoppages.

This results from the complexity of modern manufacturing equipment, the size of many modern factories, and the need for and scarcity of highly qualified specialists. The solution is to provide factory workers with tools enabling instant communications between coworkers, supervisors, maintenance, engineering and even OEMs and suppliers.

Simple and secure instant messaging and video chat that is built for manufacturers, allows factory workers to reach out for help and explain what they were dealing with. As specialists are able to see the problem for themselves, they can often offer remote troubleshoot advice without taking the time and incurring the expense of visiting the line.

The result is that repairs are made, and problems are solved faster, which means less downtime and higher efficiency. It also boosts employee engagement by improving communication and enabling more collaboration.