Here’s how medical device manufacturers can navigate the “year of the connected worker.”
Louis Columbus, DelmiaworksPerhaps the only thing that medical device companies and contract manufacturers can predict for 2021 will be continued unpredictability across supply chains, market demand, sales forecasts, and skilled workers’ availability.
In the United States, elective surgeries are on the rise after being postponed due to the pandemic—leading to higher demand for medical equipment, artificial joints, and other devices used in routine procedures. However, the application of the Defense Production Act (DPA) continues to prioritize the availability of materials and manufacturing resources in the fight against COVID-19, resulting in shortages elsewhere.
The workforce also continues to be impacted by the pandemic. Many parents have quit working to care for children schooled remotely, reducing available job candidates. Meanwhile, many employees continue to work remotely — whether out of convenience, fears over going onsite, or the manufacturer’s need to allocate more of the facility to production to meet spikes in demand. Fluctuations in demand are also leading some manufacturers to rely on temporary workers for some functions.
Medical device companies and contract manufacturers alike recognize that automation throughout the organization is critical to maintaining agility in a year of rapid change while expanding and optimizing operations to meet production demands in high-growth sectors. It is why 2021 has emerged as the year of the connected worker.
“Getting real-time data to workers, ensuring they know their roles, their goals for the day, and keeping them aware of quality objectives is working much better than tweaking a given machine for slightly more output,” the CEO of a tier-2 manufacturer in the medical device industry told me. “Our people adapt and flex faster than any machine or series of machines ever could.”
In empowering workers through automation, several proven strategies have emerged. Following are seven of the approaches gaining the most traction:
- Smarter, better sensors blur the line between workers and systems, improving everything from efficiency to health and safety. For the many manufacturers with production and process monitoring systems in place, the rapid improvements in Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and interfaces are helping to bring greater contextual information and insight to workers. For example, one medical device manufacturer upgraded the sensors used for in-line quality testing and discovered new data on how workers could reduce work instruction steps and improve quality. IoT-based data on cycle times and in-quality testing also helped ensure worker safety by revealing that several machines needed maintenance and more lubricant to alleviate the possibility of a lock-up or accident.
- Real-time analytics provide employees the information they need to spend more time on creative problem-solving to improve production throughput and quality. The essence of what makes a connected worker strategy successful is information and knowledge sharing throughout the manufacturing process. Medical device companies are using real-time analytics at every phase of their manufacturing execution process to fine-tune work instructions, improve machinery selections, and optimize each worker for a given task. They find that sharing real-time analytics across the shop floor creates greater ownership of every order’s outcome and higher productivity. Workers look for new ways to make the metrics applying to them improve.
- Intuitive, touchscreen-based shop floor interfaces to enterprise resource planning (ERP) and manufacturing execution system (MES) software improves production efficiency. These interfaces enable on-the-job training that streamlines the onboarding process for new production workers and flattens the learning curve for all employees working with new technologies. The touchscreen-based interfaces also ensure that workers have the latest real-time data on every order being built on the shop floor and greater control over and adaptability in dealing with changing forecasts and their impact on build schedules.
- Digital workflows that capitalize on the strengths of touchscreen-based shop floor interfaces guide workers through complex tasks, preventing the most common types of human errors. Medical device producers are taking advantage of the configuration functionality in their manufacturing software to customize digital workflows to meet their unique costing, quality management and time-to-market requirements. Once in production, these manufacturers make course corrections to their digital workflows based on a combination of data from real-time production and process monitoring and insights related to workers on the shop floor. The strategy leads to greater productivity gains than relying on a single metric alone.
- Remote access continues to be key to keeping supply chains, production scheduling, shipping, and customer service moving.Giving employees remote access to ERP, MES, quality management, customer relationship management (CRM), and logistics systems has enabled medical device manufacturers to maintain business continuity. These companies also have recognized that allowing employees responsible for back-office functions to work from home frees up more of the facility to expand production capacity. With more critical business functions being handled offsite, manufacturers are strengthening their security with measures like multi-factor authentication (MFA).
- Enhanced quoting and pricing through the use of three-dimensional (3D) images is addressing the need for faster time-to-market, greater channel visibility, and more visually compelling quotes of custom-configured medical devices or components. Quotes incorporating 3D models enable medical device companies and contract manufacturers to confirm the specifications of products, parts, and/or any required molds — and ensure pricing accuracy. The results are greater customer confidence, a more efficient production line with no unnecessary waste, and higher profitability.
- Digital training tools can reduce training time by as much as 75%, further increasing the expertise and knowledge of production team members across locations, according to the World Economic Forum. By maintaining a commitment to upskilling and continually providing additional training and certifications for workers, medical device manufacturers can attract and retain employees by enriching their jobs and help create a more connected workforce.
As the manufacturing vice president of one medical device company said, “It’s most important to connect workers with expertise first. Build the learning ecosystem with people, and the results will follow. Tech is secondary to their trusting each other and becoming more knowledgeable as a team.” Wise words on how to create, nurture and scale a connected workforce.
Louis Columbus is presently serving as principal of Delmiaworks (formerly IQMS). Previous positions include product management at Ingram Cloud, product marketing at iBASEt, Plex Systems, senior analyst at AMR Research (now Gartner), marketing and business development at Cincom Systems, Ingram Micro, a SaaS startup and at hardware companies.
The opinions expressed in this blog post are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of Medical Design and Outsourcing or its employees.