When we think about remote work, we usually imagine employees performing the same tasks they complete in the office at home. This means that anyone who works in a physical environment such as a warehouse, manufacturing facility, or retail store cannot work remotely.
The only type of "remote" work for industrial and retail environments is the ability to control equipment close to the user. For instance, industrial cranes are smaller than the ones used in construction so they can fit in a factory. As a result, there is no space for a cabin so it needs to be controlled using a remote. This type of technology is critical for risky activities such as welding or working with hazardous materials. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that regular positions in warehouses or retail environments can also be dangerous:
- A meatpacking company in Colorado closed after dozens of people were infected with COVID-19 and a few employees died.
- It is estimated that at least 30 Amazon distribution centers had outbreaks of COVID-19. There is no clear information about how many employees have been infected with the virus.
- Five employees of the manufacturing company Georgia Pacific tested positive for COVID-19.
One may argue that COVID-19 is an exceptional situation that will not last, but other similar pandemics may happen in the future. The history of epidemics shows that while fewer people died, there were more pandemics in the past two centuries than in any others.
While we don't fully understand what caused recent pandemics, we do know that globalization allowed contagious diseases to spread across the world. Considering that 23% of the global workforce works in the industry sector (mining and quarrying, manufacturing, construction, and public utilities), protecting these employees will benefit them, their families, and ultimately the global economy.
Technology to help industrial and retail employees work remotely
As mentioned above, the technology to work remotely in industrial environments already exists. Its main drawback is that most of it only works when the user is a few dozen or a hundred feet away from the equipment. In some cases, long-range communication capabilities allow users to control equipment from a distance of up to five miles. By comparison, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) can reach ranges up to 14,155 miles (22,780 km).
It goes without saying that a UCAV is much more expensive than any other technology for remote industrial work. At the same time, many types of technological advancements were initiated by the army and ended up being used by the general public. The best example is the internet, initially developed by the Department of Defense under the name Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).
Two types of technology can help industrial and retail employees work remotely: software and hardware to remotely control equipment, and technology that enables remote control.
Industrial remote control systems
Due to the safety and environmental risks faced by manufacturers and retailers, industrial remote control systems have been around for decades. Hardware and software providers tried to provide tools that would keep employees safe, reduce environmental incidents, and improve operations. All these benefits come at a high cost for companies, which need to invest in new hardware and software, compatible equipment, and employee training. For instance, a hand control remote can cost up to $1,000—not including the wireless antenna required to use it—and is only compatible with specific types of equipment.
Wired and wireless industrial control
The internet and WiFi technology can turn any mobile device into a remote. Industrial remotes have been used even before smartphones, and the first versions were wired remotes (similar to the remote controls for TVs in the 50s and 60s). A cord, even a long one, means a limited range, which was ok for TV sets but isn't very useful in an industrial setting. While wireless technology made things better, it's still limited, even when extenders or boosters are used to improve its range.
To address this issue, companies like Westermo, Antaira, Belden, and Advantech created industrial wireless solutions with few specific characteristics. First of all, these solutions rely on hardware specifically designed for industrial use. This means that routers, modems, or switches are rugged, which makes them capable of withstanding rough handling. These devices can also be used in extreme conditions such as temperature below -40 C and above +70 C. Also, the companies mentioned above provide services and software to create industrial networks optimized for manufacturing or retail use.
Human-machine interface (HMI)
As the name implies, this type of technology provides an interface that employees can use to interact with intelligent equipment remotely. HMI cannot be used with any kind of equipment—only those with sensors, software, and hardware such as programming logic controllers (PLC). PLCs are mini-computers adapted for the industrial environment, which can be a component of a piece of equipment or added to fixed assets. Using PLCs, and HMI tools allow users to access real-time equipment information.
Also, the interactions between users and machines can be limited to monitoring equipment characteristics such as temperature or pressure. Human intervention is limited to exceptional situations when equipment or personnel are at risk. HMI is, therefore, more useful for troubleshooting than performing industrial operations.
The shortcomings of HMI and industrial control systems can be overcome by using technologies like the internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality (VR).
Enablers of industrial remote control
Any technology that might help control equipment is limited by the infrastructure it uses. Like using a powerful computer with a slow internet connection, the best industrial control tools are not that useful without reliable networks.
Another type of enabler is any kind of technology that can create a virtual environment in which users are completely protected from risks.
IoT and IIoT
The Internet of Things (IoT) may be the solution to the limited range problem mentioned above. As IoT networks are supposed to be global and cover multiple geographic locations, employees could theoretically use them from anywhere in the world.
Since industrial networks aren't global and wireless control tools have limited range, Industrial IoT (IIoT) aims to provide systems that are better adapted to manufacturers' and retailers' needs. IIoT delivers enhanced security to protect companies against hacking and was designed to work with industrial devices such as sensors or PLC. Furthermore, IIoT providers also offer software that companies can use to create and manage apps for IoT.
AR, VR, and digital twins
Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) show potential to help industrial companies improve operations. Most of this potential is still untapped, though. AR and VR are mostly used in product design and training.
Digital twins are a more recent application of VR in manufacturing. A digital twin is a virtual copy of a piece of equipment or a facility such as a plant or a factory. While digital twins are extremely useful in the design process, they are not used for remote work. Some creative uses of digital twins have been tested in industries like healthcare, such as a digital model of the human brain or heart. The concept is the same, though: simulating what would happen to a person if she undergoes surgery or takes medication. Performing virtual surgery isn't feasible yet, but mixed reality can help doctors with valuable information and simulation.
The digital twin market size is expected to grow by $12.27 billion between 2018-2023 due to increased demand for real-time monitoring and maintenance data.
Is remote work feasible for industrial employees?
In theory, yes. In practice, probably not. While employees can benefit from working remotely, the costs of improving and implementing this type of technology may outweigh its advantages. Additionally, we now have the technology to automate many manufacturing and retail processes completely. Automation requires more investment than industrial remote control systems but is also expected to provide significantly more benefits.
|Read more: The Pros and Cons of Different Automation Types →|
First, it has more extensive use, not limited to industrial sectors. Robots can be useful at home, chatbots are already implemented in services industries, and RPA can be used by any company to automate simple tasks. Second, it significantly reduces labor costs and related expenses such as insurance and benefits. Additionally, robots with AI can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Finally, the two factors mentioned above attract investors, which increases competition and makes the technology more affordable. Affordability attracts more investment, and so on.
While the business benefits of automation are obvious, its impact on our society is still largely unknown. If COVID-19 teaches us anything, it should be that we need to care more about people and the environment. Preparing for the next major economic disruption requires forward-thinking and strategic analysis to determine the best technology to benefit everyone, not only investors and shareholders.