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Evolving technology and demographics are rapidly changing the manufacturing world.
As new systems and technologies like IoT are integrated into processes, legacy systems that have run manufacturing operations for years -- like ERP, manufacturing execution systems (MES) and product lifecycle management (PLM) -- are increasingly undergoing a digital transformation and being used by a younger generation of workers.
This has opened up opportunities for a new product that vendors like SAP, Honeywell and Oracle call connected worker platforms. They integrate legacy systems with next-generation technologies such as IoT analytics and AI to help workers perform tasks more efficiently and effectively.
Connected worker platforms include the front-line industrial workers in the process of industrial digital transformation, said Peter Bussey, research analyst with LNS Research, a Cambridge, Mass., firm that focuses on industrial issues.
"Initially, industrial digital transformation initiatives and investment focused mainly on using asset-related data to improve core operational areas -- things like asset reliability, product quality, energy management and productivity," Bussey said. "Over the past few years, there's been an increased recognition of the importance of making sure to include people into these kinds of initiatives."
There's no standard definition for what a connected worker platform or initiative is, Bussey said, but, in general, they literally connect front-line workers with the systems they use and with each other.
"They engage the front-line workforce, so that they're not isolated, they're more collaborative, they have more access to information, more visibility and control to be able to work in this environment," Bussey said.
Take the connected worker platform from Parsable Inc., a software firm based in San Francisco. Parsable's connected worker platform was developed to meet the needs of the changing manufacturing environment, said Lawrence Whittle, Parsable CEO.
"ERP, MES, PLM [systems] were never really architected for people who do the actual work," Whittle said. "There's an opportunity with the demographics shift, the ever-increasing drive for productivity, and this huge amount of work that's going on around machines and operations that are not currently being automated in any systematic way."
The Parsable connected worker platform, Whittle said, enables manufacturers to replace the binders, walkie-talkies and printers that they currently use to manage the parts of the process that can't be captured by ERP or other manufacturing systems. Those systems, for example, can tell workers what needs to be done and when, but they can't tell them how to do the procedure.
Lawrence WhittleCEO, Parsable
The Parsable platform captures how and when procedures are performed and identifies areas for collaboration, all of which can be accessed by mobile devices. For example, a field service technician can be alerted when maintenance is needed on a piece of equipment and then use the Parsable mobile app to access the work procedures, the needed parts, and, if necessary, to speak to experts.
The mobile device becomes a kind of digital guide on how to execute work, connecting workers to work instructions or operating procedures, integrated with new unstructured data types from applications like WhatsApp, SMS or Slack, according to Whittle.
"This provides a single pane of glass for anyone -- whether it's the janitor or someone building an airplane -- to know how to systematically execute work with digital structures, collect data and collaborate," he said. "It provides the last mile between the machine and the system that's currently dark data."
Covering the last mile
Grupo Lala, a global dairy production company, has just completed a proof-of-concept project with the Parsable connected worker platform and plans a wider adoption.
Based in Gomez Palacio, Mexico, Grupo Lala produces many brands of dairy and non-dairy products in plants across Mexico, the U.S., Brazil, and Central America. The company has run its operations on SAP systems for years but was looking for a platform that could capture, analyze and use all the data that surrounds the SAP applications, like how to perform procedures such as equipment maintenance, said Marvin Nahmias, Grupo Lala's chief innovation and information technology officer.
Grupo Lala is integrating next-generation technology like IoT into its systems, and had adopted SAP Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (MII) to manage the data that's uploaded to Microsoft IoT Hub. However, the company wanted a simpler way to put useful analytics into the hands of its workers.
"The problem with these administration systems is, you can have the MII system, but people still run around with binders as they do things and then they enter it on the system manually," Nahmias said. "Even though you can give them a tablet to do it, this is the reality of what happens."
ERP systems can record when and what happens in manufacturing operations, such as quality or logistics, but they say nothing about how the work was done.
"The last mile is very important for us and this is where Parsable comes in," he said. "For example, in maintenance, SAP records that the maintenance happened, but it doesn't record this metadata about how things actually happen."
Ease of use a key benefit
One of the aspects that makes Parsable valuable for Grupo Lala is the ease of use for end users. The app can be deployed on a worker's own mobile device.
"It actually took zero training, which is good because 80% of our workforce is millennials," Nahmias said. "It was extremely fast for people to adopt this and [we let people] bring their own phone, so that works pretty well."
But, Nahmias acknowledged, change management was an issue and adoption was not automatic. Because Parsable records how and when procedures are performed, for example, workers needed to know that the purpose of the application was to help them improve safety and productivity rather than to record errors.
"Where it didn't work well was when people didn't want to be monitored," he said. "But we worked early on to tell them that we're going to do a better job of saying, 'We want you to do a better job,' rather than just saying, 'We're policing you and we're going to get rid of you if you don't do it right.'"
So far, the Parsable implementation promises Grupo Lala tangible benefits like the savings on the paper used for processes. But it also provides the company with better metrics on the processes and promises to keep workers more engaged, Nahmias said.
"We're actually seeing slightly less turnover in the places that are starting to use Parsable. People are more engaged, and it becomes something that is cool to use," he said.
Parsable helps enable transformation
Parsable is one of the connected worker platforms that is helping enable an industrial transformation, said LNS Research's Bussey.
Industrial transformation refers to the digital transformation of industrial operations, Bussey said. While this generally means the implementation of technology like IIoT and robotics, connected worker platforms incorporate human workers into the transformation.
Parsable fits into a category of connected worker platforms that enable some of the most basic use cases, such as enabling mobile devices in a manufacturing environment, Bussey said. This usually takes the form of allowing workers to access digitized documents such as work instructions, but there is a higher level of the connected worker initiative that platforms like Parsable also enables.
"Moving further up that value ladder -- and Parsable participates in this -- is taking advantage of IoT data and real-time data and either delivering it to the worker as they're performing tasks so that that can be incorporated in the work, such as the condition of equipment or operating conditions," he said. "But also, and this is what I think the real end game here is, is being able to leverage IoT data about how the workers are performing their tasks or interacting with the workplace -- taking machine and human workplace interaction data, and being able to analyze that with advanced analytics, including AI, and using that to guide improvements."
The connected worker platform market is crowded, Bussey said, and there are alternatives to Parsable's approach.
"They are one of the major players, but there are a virtually unlimited number of connected worker solutions right now," he said.