Coronavirus outbreak: From sanitising tunnels to vibrating wristbands, shop floors don a new reality

MUMBAI: If workers come close to one another their wristband would vibrate to remind them to keep safe distance, they won’t share tools, and they would walk through a sanitising tunnel and fill up a health questionnaire every day when they report duty.

If automation made manufacturers across sectors redraw their assembly lines, the impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak is making them recalibrate the shop floor to meet health and safety protocols and social distancing norms without hampering productivity as they look to restart production after the nationwide lockdown.

Companies such as Maruti Suzuki, Mahindra & Mahindra, Toyota Kirloskar, Tata Steel, Vedanta, Dalmia Cement, Thermax, Panasonic, Lumax, and Shriram Pistons are putting in place various measures such as demarcated work areas on shop floors with plastic screen shields, re-laid assembly lines, automating and digitising various processes to reduce human interaction, working with 50% manpower and more shifts, sanitising tunnel of disinfectant mist of sodium hypochlorite for workers, big trucks and vehicles, PPE for security staff, continuous monitoring of employee health, and automated sanitiser dispensers.

“As auto workers start reporting to shop floors, taking temperatures and filling daily health questionnaires will be the new normal,” said Rajeshwar Tripathi, chief human resources officer of Mahindra & Mahindra, the country’s largest tractor and UV player.

Companies are grappling with the reality that the shop floor has to be redesigned and automated to maintain productivity working at 50% of staff strength at any given time, at least till the Covid-19 scare is significantly mitigated.

“With social distancing norms, getting the same productivity will be challenging and hence adoption of low cost automation is being fast-tracked,” said Deepak Jain, managing director of Lumax Industries.

Most companies are increasing the number of shifts and plan to run 24/7 to reduce average footfall on shop floor at any given time.

“There will be no over lapping of shifts with gaps of one hour,” said Ashok Taneja, MD of component maker Shriram Pistons & Rings. “As the machine shop gets re-laid, the final quality inspection area, will have fewer workers.” As shop floors accelerate digitisation in key areas like quality, safety of workers will be of paramount importance, Taneja said.

Dalmia Bharat Group has set demarcation areas on shop floor with temporary hard plastic screen shields put up where only one person can work. Also, tools that workers use such as spanner and welding tool are being coded and identified so that each person has their dedicated set of tools which others will not touch, group HR head Ajit Menon said.

Experts said re-laying and automating assembly lines will involve significant investment. While it is difficult to put a ball mark figure, the amount will vary considering the size of the plant, volumes and how technologically advanced the plant is, they said.

To start with, most shop floors will run at lesser capacity with just about 50% manpower, putting off big investments until the demand picks up, industry insiders said.

Tata Steel plans to conduct its morning tool meetings on the shop floor where workers from previous shift communicate safety instructions, etc. in smaller groups of not more than 10 people in each. “We used to have a lot of maintenance work on the shop floor which we will now do in batches to have smaller groups of people,” said Suresh Tripathi, vice president – HR at Tata Steel. “Most of the systems on the shop floor are mostly automated and controlled from a control room where physical distancing is maintained.”

Many manufacturers have reached out to management firms to put in place a blueprint to attain maximum productivity while adhering all health and safety protocols with inputs such as an infectious disease preparedness and response plan and time shift between shifts. “There is a case to move from an efficiency-based approach to include efficacy elements in the post-Covid-19 production principles and practices,” said Vinay Raghunath, auto practice head at EY.

Adarsh Mishra, chief HR officer of Panasonic India, said the firm will start operations in batches with raw materials and finished goods being sanitised through an incubation period before going to the factory floor.

Vedanta has installed non-touch based hand washing system, sanitiser fogging, social distancing measures through on ground marking, etc. to ensure minimum contact, its CHRO Madhu Srivastava said.

Engineering major Thermax plans to employ 25-30% lesser workforce per shift while readjusting workflow at the shop floor and instruments such as a jig and a fixture can be used to alienate distance between process workers. Autonomous trolleys will be used in the assembly line, said MS Unnikrishnan, managing director and CEO of Thermax.

Yugal Sikri, managing director of RPG Life Sciences, said, “We have spaced out the people working in our quality assurance labs and will increase the number of shifts at our factories so that people work in smaller groups.”

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