By Adam Montoya, VP Industrial Solutions, Bright Machines
Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a new report – Guidance for Preparing Workplaces on COVID-19 – which outlines a set of guidelines workplaces can follow to keep employees safe as COVID-19 sweeps the globe at an alarming rate.
Recommendations range from basic infection prevention measures like frequent handwashing, to flexible work policies and practices in order to limit physical contact between employees. Echoing a mandate that much of the world is familiar with as of late, the new OSHA guidelines recommend maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between individuals in the workplace. They’ve also identified categories of risk based on job type – ranging from low to “very high.” According to the OSHA categories, jobs that require frequent and/or close contact (within 6 feet) with individuals are considered “medium exposure risk” jobs.
Workplace guidelines bring new challenges to the factory
What about the individuals lined up together on the factory floor to assemble and inspect our products? These people commonly sit inches apart, vs. feet. Most jobs – including factory roles – fall into the “medium exposure” category. But unlike administrative jobs or other types of roles that can seamlessly shift to a “work from home” reality, most factory jobs simply can’t be done outside of the factory. For manufacturers, these new guidelines prove extra challenging not only from a logistical standpoint but from a business standpoint. In fact, most factories don’t have an infectious disease emergency plan and are ill equipped to meet new prevention requirements.
Around the world, manufacturers are doing their best to meet OSHA guidelines. One major manufacturer of industrial products added spacing tape on the factory floor to allow for appropriate distance between stations. A major appliance manufacturer even put up shower curtains between employees to limit spacing and required temperature screenings before employees could enter the building.
While these are simple factory “hacks” to address prevention guidelines in the near-term, manufacturers around the globe share many key concerns about the broader implications of our post-COVID world on the industry. Some of these include the following possibilities:
- Shutting down an entire factory due to the spread of the infection
- Retooling an entire factory to meet the 6-foot spacing guideline, resulting in larger floor space, and slower cycle times
- Increased costs from protective gear supplies (sanitation, masks, etc.)
- Further disruption to the overall supply chain
- Adding pressure to produce high-demand products as part of COVID-19 response
- Simplifying work tasks in order to provide flexibility of manufacturing operations
Faced with these difficult considerations, manufacturers are taking a critical look at how to build in resiliency to future-proof their operations against the next disruption – be it a disease outbreak, natural disaster, or trade shifts.
Intelligent factory automation is a natural solution for disruptions of all sizes, as it keeps employees safe without compromising the speed and quality of production. Also, since it’s software-driven, the smart automation can accommodate fast product changeovers and be maintained remotely.
With automated assembly and inspection, manufacturers become less reliant on human operators so that they are better prepared to handle any disruption. In reducing the need for manual labor, infection risk associated with these on-site factory roles is also reduced. In this context, the new OSHA guidelines, become easier to implement. For example, our configurable robotic cells, not only naturally allow for the OSHA advised 6 foot spacing, but they also result in reduced expense on sanitation and floor space.
Simply put, automation future proof’s today’s factories for manufacturing’s inevitable future where supply chains are dynamic, production is distributed, and manual processes are limited.
Guidelines Today, requirements Tomorrow?
Around the world, governments are taking drastic measures to “flatten the curve” and recommendations are becoming more strictly enforced with each day that passes. In the next 3-6 months, these workplace recommendations by OSHA may very well turn from guidelines into rules. Manufacturers won’t just be encouraged but required to make the adjustments needed in order to ensure the health and protection of their workforces. Now is the time to think strategically about how to prepare for emergencies of this magnitude.
For more information about how smart automation can make your factory more resilient in times of crisis, check out our webinar, “What You Need to Know About OSHA’S New Factory Guidelines”. Register for this free webinar today!
About the Author
Adam Montoya is a manufacturing and engineering expert with two decades of experience on the world’s factory floors. At Bright Machines he leads a world-class team devoted to evaluating and implementing automation in today’s factories, directly addressing customer pain-points and revealing new market opportunities. He spent 10 years at Flex, leading the Manufacturing Technology and Automation team and prior to this held several positions at Solectron.