#AMneeds: Additive Manufacturing and Factory Floor Workers


Lee-Bath Nelson  

aectual-3D-printed-floor-terrazzo-infill detail

I was glad to be invited to speak at a webinar about “The Future Factory” (recorded password is SwipeRight!), organized by SwipeGuide. The audience was comprised of manufacturing managers and executives and the emphasis was on the future of the factory floor and on improving the experience of factory floor workers. My part was about the role of Additive Manufacturing (AM) in any manufacturing floor and as I prepared for this talk and round table I realized there were a lot of needs that factory floor workers still have. Some can be addressed by AM. Of course, when the factory floor in question is doing AM production, there are even more needs answered by the AM ecosystem. As usual, in our #AMneeds series, it’s about the needs themselves but also some solutions that are already starting to address them. Unlike most #AMneeds posts, this post highlights the need of factory floors in general rather than the needs of just the AM ecosystem itself.

Expertise and Training

A factory floor is often a complex environment that requires a lot of expertise to stay up and running. The bulk of this expertise is in the hands of factory floor workers, or at least some of them. Sharing this expertise without corrupting it and training less skilled workers is a major need on the factory floor. If it is an AM factory floor, expertise can be encapsulated and securely shared or applied automatically (LEO Lane can help!). On other factory floors, SwipeGuide offers digital solutions for training and propagation of expertise on the manufacturing floor. This helps with first-time-right manufacturing which is important to curtail employee frustration and dissatisfaction.

In addition, COVID-19 has accelerated all aspects of digitization and Industry 4.0. This requires reskilling of the manufacturing workforce according to Jasmeet Singh, a senior Infosys executive. Singh believes additive manufacturing will play a large role in the required reskilling process as factory floor workers are reskilled to handle and operate 3D printers. In fact, he believes that this will offset, in terms of manpower, the automation that is inherent in Industry 4.0 and which may create a fear of job losses. Finding effective ways to train manufacturing workers to become AM operators is an important #AMneed of the entire AM ecosystem.

3D printed jigs ford_trinckle_╕_steve_bergmann

Initiative and Innovation

Many experts believe that innovation, and specifically digital transformation, on the manufacturing floor is more important than ever. Usually, innovation and digital transformation is parachuted on the floor and the factory floor workers must adopt it as prescribed. Getting factory floor workers involved with innovation and taking initiative is important for their sense of growth and self development. Additive manufacturing can help here! Because of its digital nature and quick turnaround, AM is ideally suited for on the floor initiatives. We’ve seen train infrastructure repairmen work with an engineer in their group to design 3D printed aids that improve their productivity as well as the robustness of the resulting repair. The aids are 3D printed on a simple FDM 3D printer using ABS or PLA material. Much more can be done to encourage workers to take the initiative and innovate in the way they work, and how they share their expertise.

Ford has taken a proactive approach: it found a tool it can provide its factory floor workers to facilitate initiative and problem solving using 3D printing. Trinckle‘s software application allows an auto assembly worker to easily design a tool or guide to help with particular jobs, without any 3D design knowledge. The worker shows the software where on a part or assembly the problem is (see above) and what kind of tooling is needed and the software generates a 3D printable tool to address it that can be adjusted by the worker. With the help of an FDM machine on the factory floor, workers can get their self designed aids after 5-10 minutes spent on design and a few hours spent for printing (examples below). In other companies, for example in the transportation industry, digital inventories of tooling allow factories in different location to benefit from tooling developed at other sites. Something else that gives a sense of engagement to the person that came up with the problem and its fix as well as to her colleague who is enjoying it.

Trinckle-Ultimaker-Ford-3d printed jigs

Quality of Life at Work

Innovating on the factory floor is important, but safety comes first. These days safety is first and foremost about measures relating to COVID-19 safety. Making sure social distancing and minimal person to person touch is maintained creates many needs that some analysts, like EY and McKinsey, are listing in recent reports. In some cases specialized PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) is needed as well. AM has shown itself to be very useful during the pandemic for just such solutions, both for protective gear and for aids in enforcing the health guidelines such as social distancing. I have not seen anything yet adapted specifically to the factory floor, which is in urgent need of such solutions as it is a place where people work in person (as opposed to remotely) and sometimes in close quarters. Enabling remote control and automation (also something the AM ecosystem can help with) as much as possible will alleviate this to some extent but solutions are needed. For social distancing, there is the small Maggy gadget that could potentially be integrated with workers’ badges as radiation monitoring is. Integration is important for universal use on the factory floor as Maggy only works for distance between 2 device holders.

Aside from COVID safety, there is also the issue of ergonomics to consider. Creating a more ergonomic work environment is very important for factory floor worker wellbeing. By its nature, ergonomics tends to be personal, making AM the natural choice for creating ergonomic solutions on the factory floor. Indeed, companies such as industrial equipment maker Eckhart and electronics manufacturer Liberty have used 3D printed tooling to help with worker ergonomics. It seems clear that more can be done by the AM ecosystem to help with this problem.

F2F-CORDIS-article-factory floor

Empowering the Factory Floor

We’ve often talked about how AM can help keep a manufacturing floor going by making sure it gets  tooling and spare parts in a timely manner. In my Future Factory talk, I also touch on missing parts for assembly plants, especially in the face of supply chain failures. But these are more systemic issues, the factory floor worker (and their manager) is looking for empowerment tools on a personal level, similar to the Trinckle solution mentioned above. Empowering workers is one of the main recommendation of any large consulting firm both to improve efficiency and to help with manpower retention and engagement. Gallup has found that overall only about a third of employees feel engaged, and in the manufacturing sector that ratio is the lowest of all sectors: only a quarter of employees feel engaged. In particular, COVID-19 has caused large variations in engagement, as seen by Gallup’s polls throughout the last 9 months, but at present we are back to pre-COVID levels. So empowering employees is as important as ever, if not more important than ever. Several collaborations are aiming to address this issue, including the Horizon 2020 project Factory2Fit (factory photo from them above). Added to the list of needs we already highlighted, it is clear that factor floors still have many unmet needs and additive manufacturing should help address this.

For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates. Top pic from Aectual: a floor printing 3D printer – it builds a framework that is later filled to create a terrazzo floor.

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