Protecting what matters most to UK factories

It is widely acknowledged that the coronavirus has done more to advance our digital, cyber and virtual capabilities, changing adoption and use cases faster than ever before. In this socially-distanced world digital technologies have shown that by keeping apart we’ve all come closer together.

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Since 23 March, the Covid-19 pandemic has been responsible for more changes to multiple areas of our lives than any other factor in the post-war era. Social impacts, new ways of working and a complete rethink of offices as ‘spaces to work’ have caused untold disruption, leading businesses to rethink operating models and industrial footprints. On the flip-side, it’s also widely acknowledged that the coronavirus has done more to advance our digital, cyber and virtual capabilities, changing adoption and use cases faster than ever before. In this socially-distanced world digital technologies have shown that by keeping apart we’ve all come closer together.

For a lot of industries, their machines did not fall silent even during the height of the pandemic. Key workers diligently kept certain sectors running, using the latest guidance on safe working practices. During this incredible year, Siemens has been right at the vanguard of keeping our economy moving, deploying its full suite of digital solutions to ensure the safe, productive, and efficient running of many sectors of UK industry.

As we approach the winter months, productivity is squarely back in the crosshairs for manufacturers. What hasn’t changed however, is an unwavering determination to keep employees safe in their highly complex and production-critical environments. For Siemens, technology with purpose is not just a corporate strapline; each of our 370,000 employees believes that technology should make life better for our customers, colleagues, and partners.

This is about protecting people, process, and profit in our factories, at a time when each is highly sensitive.  

Protecting your most valuable assets

As plants and manufacturing facilities start to return to full capacity with the new challenges created by the pandemic, operation managers and health and safety officials must keep employees safe while also optimising production. One facet of the pandemic that hasn’t changed throughout has been the need for social distancing. Guidelines from governments and The World Health Organisation recommend at least 2m of distance between people to minimise the risk to employees’ health.

The problem is that without a location tracking system within a manufacturing facility, employers can be unaware of some of the bottlenecks created on the shop floor; unavoidable for employees to perform their roles efficiently. Ultimately, this is about keep employees safe while optimising throughput at a facility.

Siemens’ SieTrace application paired with the SIMATIC Real Time Location Systems (RTLS) can help maintain Social Distancing. It can also give plant managers and operation managers that all-important people data that enables them to see not just the movement of goods, but the movement of its workers. 

Real Time Location System (RTLS)  

You can use SIMATIC RTLS to navigate material flows, control mobile robots, monitor component use, and fully document the final product assembly. 

Unprecedented transparency 

This wearable technology (RTLS) combined with the software (SieTrace) allows companies to keep track of their most valuable assets within 30cm of their actual position in the factory. Transponders can be put into lanyards or into clothing, feeding real-time data back to the app.

This high-level of accuracy can enable seamless tracking of employees around the factory. A Location Manager would then be able to monitor compliance with social distancing guidelines in real-time, using a digital twin of the factory. Through this interface, they would have the ability to define dwell time and radius criteria for unsafe violations, easily identify hot spots of unsafe violations to help improve facility layout and export reports to help identify employees at risk of exposure. This data is then presented on an easy to use social distancing dashboard. The app also has the power to deliver contact tracing updates to devices, advising workers to isolate if they’ve been in contact with a Covid-carrying colleague.

The power of RTLS was initially realised for use with tools and high-value items in the factory. Product Manager Lee Wragg explained: “We can put a RTLS transponder in a power tool. Let’s say that tool is fitting screws that need to be fitted in a sequence, so top left, bottom right and so on. If the operator tries to put the wrong sequenced screw on the part the tool won’t work. It knows precisely where the head of the tool is versus where it should be according to the bill of process. We’ve successfully used the RTLS system at our blade factory in Hull to track the blade’s progress through production as well as with our partners in F1 to monitor the movement of high value powder used for 3D printing.”

In the smart factories of the future, various production materials like automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and mobile robots will work together with humans, machines and systems. The location of a machine or robot will be a relevant variable in this regard. Knowing where they are in the factory is therefore essential for a self-directed, highly efficient workflow. 

Covid’s impact on output  

Manufacturing environments are generally finely tuned places. Ross Caddens, Head of Business Development for Siemens Digital Industries, said: “A normal factory is designed around efficiency. It's all about minimising that flow of the product, the amount of non-value-added time from the operators. There’s always a trade-off on different aspects of production to keep an optimal throughput.”

With the addition of social distancing, many companies will now have to factor in that one operator may now no longer be able to complete two processes or pass a certain way to pick a part. Operators may be required to stay at one station in order to avoid contact with others. Plant simulation holds the key in order to optimise and plot the movement of employees and parts around the factory, especially as we enter the new normality due to Covid-19.

Ross said: “We can offer predictive analysis of a plant. Once we’ve simulated the line, we can factor in a number of variables around production scheduling, part availability and reducing staff numbers. All of this can be modelled to keep the optimum number of parts moving through and make the owners aware of certain scenarios.”

But with this high level of digital mapping comes another facet that will appeal to the increasingly remote advanced manufacturing employees, tasked with keeping the machines and process running efficiently. Intosite technology offers a form of Google Street View for technicians and managers to be able to fly through a factory and see live data from the comfort of their own home. In this remote digitally distanced new normal, the ability to obtain real-time diagnostics and data from a plant could prove invaluable.

“This is all about keeping people who don’t need to be on-site, away from site,” said Ross. “No one needs to come into work if the live data is being delivered to them hundreds of miles away. You could monitor a specific machine in Congleton from the other side of the world and still have the same high level of reporting from it. This enables us to share information between plants and shifts and conduct daily planning and status reviews. It also helps us show customers and suppliers just what is going on at any given point in the production cycle.”

Appropriately fast app development 

One major concern for employers and employees alike is that without a Covid-19 vaccine, people’s lives will remain in a certain level of flux for many months to come. Fourteen-day quarantines will undoubtedly disrupt any form of normality should a particular employee or cluster of employees fall ill. Thanks to a Siemens software acquisition, Mendix, companies are now able to quickly produce company-derived track and trace apps, tailored to their workforce’s needs.

“This could be highly effective in the transparency of employee reporting,” Ross said. “Each employee could fill out a certain checklist of symptoms or lack of, each morning before work. They could also note any social distancing breaches they may have had to help the management team spot hot-spots in the factory. What it means is that HR has a view of who is in work and who isn’t there day to day. You’d also be able to see who is isolating for 14 days and feed this data into the production schedule. The alternative is that the HR team phones round all employees on a daily basis to check on their health. This is our self-service offering to companies to really keep a track of the heatlh of their employees, and their wellbeing.”

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