The PMI index for May, issued by the Institute for Supply Management, showed that the U.S. economy bottomed out following the drastic contraction in output that occurred in April.
The index records the health of the manufacturing industry and, while there was improvement, the best way to consider the May results is that they weren’t as bad as April’s results.
In other words, the economy is still contracting but not as rapidly.
What does this mean for manufacturers? Without delving into the minutiae of the May PMI index, suffice it to say that customer orders remained weak, along with export orders. Demand continued to be on life support which means that manufacturing enterprises that have re-opened, like automakers and their related suppliers, for example, are being faced with some serious questions: how quickly do they re-hire, how many idled workers do they bring back and how will they handle the critical physical distancing requirement to prevent any outbreaks of the coronavirus.
Re-Open But Do It Right
Let’s start with the last question, first. Sensors have been playing a growing role on the factory floor for some years; they are inexpensive enough to be put into widespread use and sophisticated enough to spot issues in production lines before the issues become major problems. Sensors are being widely used in preventative maintenance programs, benefitting both the customer and the manufacturer. The customer gets timely maintenance that eliminates sudden equipment outages while the manufacturer has a steady flow of data from the sensors that can be analyzed in real-time to alert service personnel of potential problems at a customer’s site, thereby strengthening the key relationship with a customer.
This, we already know from the many success stories involving sensors, data analytics and machine learning.
Flexible Technology Solutions
However, sensors can be given new assignments in the wake of the pandemic. According to Ray Almgrens, the CEO of Swift Sensors, a company that manufactures sensors for the food, transportation and industrial production industries, sensors can be employed to monitor door openings and report instantly on whether too many people are in a room at the same time, violating physical distancing requirements.
Sensors can also be used to control zones within a plant. By creating zones and limiting employees to a specific space, companies can use sensors to prevent the potential spread of the virus from employees moving beyond their assigned area.
The pandemic has seen the use of communication technology to facilitate remote work. Software technologies like Salesforce’s Quip, allow employees to continue to communicate and collaborate from the safety of their own homes. The same remote capability applies to manufacturing settings equipped with sensors that can be monitored remotely, says Almgrens.
He argues there is no need to have service or maintenance managers on site when equipment can be monitored just as carefully off-site.
This partially answers the second issue facing manufacturers: how many employees to bring back. Given the weakness in new orders contained in the most recent PMI Index report, there’s probably not a great likelihood that all those who were furloughed from their factory floor jobs will be brought back at once. The business case, unfortunately, will be what dictates this.
However, remote sensors, especially when connected with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), can mean that employees can be back at their jobs, safely, from a remote location – away from the factory floor. This is another opportunity to create the safety of space for those who are on the floor while reducing the number of people who have to move around a plant in order to do their job.
The pace of re-hiring is the biggest question. As long as government programs pay salaries for furloughed workers, manufacturers and other businesses can avoid facing that decision. Once the government programs are phased out at the end of September 2020, companies must decide who returns and their decision could mean a permanent loss of some jobs.
Still, if technology is put to good use through sensors and other software-based products that permit remote work, and manufacturers establish and stick to proper physical distancing, they will be doing everything in their control to avoid any outbreaks at their facilities.
The worst possible scenario would be having to shut down again, something that would quickly result in employees being laid off, rather than furloughed, this time.