Several years ago while I was researching an article on the former Massey-Ferguson combine assembly plant in Brantford, Ont., I spoke to a handful of engineers and employees who had worked there in the 1960s. I distinctly recall one of them mentioning how innovative and advanced it was at the time to see a “computer” on the shop floor near the assembly line.
Of course, he was talking about an old IBM machine that worked with cardboard punch cards. Modern then, not so much now.
Last year AGCO, which now owns the MF brand, announced that it had incorporated a new digital component into its Jackson, Minnesota tractor and sprayer assembly plant. This time, however, they weren’t talking about machines the size of a small refrigerator. They were referring to wearable computer technology, specifically Google Glass.
Many workers on the assembly line now wear a pair of Google Glass glasses as they go about their jobs. The connectivity that these glasses offer gives staff immediate access to the plant’s wireless network, so the technical information in the network is available in a moment right in front of their eyes.
No longer do workers have to walk away from their stations to get assembly diagrams and information. Instead, the information now appears as an image in their field of vision as they carry out the tasks the documents describe.
“In the nature of the products we build, you don’t necessarily see the same configurations over and over.There are a ton of options,” explains Eric Fisher, director of operations at Jackson. “Some of them, people might see once a month or even less frequently than that. So the ability to have information at your eye as you’re working on it is an incredibly powerful tool. Many of our cycle times are two hours that an employee is working on a unit. That’s a lot of content to remember. It’s not like an automotive operation where there are just a couple of minutes of work content, then you’re repeating it.”
“(The Google Glass project) started, really, in December of 2013,” says Peggy Gulick, director of digital transformation, global manufacturing, at AGCO. “They deemed that walking over to a computer terminal to get or input information was not productive. So they had a meeting and decided, you know what, we’re going to have a tablet. We can carry it with us and get all that stuff.”
But that created another problem. As workers went about their assembly jobs, the tablets were often getting dropped or damaged.
“So IT came back with two solutions. One was to have some kind of wearable technology to make sure the tablet stayed with them, or maybe duct tape the tablet to them so they don’t drop it,” says Gulick with a chuckle.
At that time Google was offering corporations — and even individuals — a chance to experiment with the then-new wearable Google Glass, offering glasses that display a computer screen image next to the wearer’s eye, among other features.
Gulick says management was skeptical at first, but decided to try that one free pair and see if it had any potential.
“So in January of 2014 we started playing with Glass. We took that one pair and people put them on and were so excited, saying, ‘Oh my gosh, it solves all our problems’, until they realized you could link to all of our in-house internet systems. But they couldn’t log in; they couldn’t change screens. They were really based on a consumer initiative. So it took us six months to find a developer that knew our business case, partner with them and put a solution in place.”
That solution was a new software program called “Proceedix,” which was installed in the glasses. Then the project really began to move forward.
“Our first solution was a simple check list. Check this, check this, this is what it should look like,” Gulick says. “We were using the same image we had on the tablet, the same checklists, but we needed to be able to zoom in on images. When we worked with our software partner we said we need to be able to pan the image to freeze it, and we have to be able to zoom at a high resolution.
“After six months we had six pairs, but we needed to add safety glass to put it on the shop floor and prove the concept. So we partnered up with 3M to have them develop one with safety glass.”
“It’s a tool that makes it easier to get information,” adds Fisher. Quality goes up as workers double-check with the network instead of relying on memory.
Now that a year has passed since that first public announcement revealing the plant incorporated Google Glass glasses into its operation, their value has become even clearer. Aside from reducing assembly line errors and the resulting costs of warranty repairs and customer dissatisfaction, expanding the use of Google Glass on the line has led to some pretty significant efficiency gains.
“By using Glass in product quality control, AGCO has been able to reduce inspection time by more than 30 per cent and cut the production time for low-volume, high-complexity assemblies by 25 per cent,” Gulick says. “In addition, training is more efficient with a 50 per cent reduction in time needed to train new employees. Staff training on cross-functional operations has been cut threefold, reducing the average learning curve from 10 days to three.”
Not all of those benefits were expected, especially their use in training new hires.
“It was definitely an iterative process,” says Fisher. “There were some places where right away we saw a benefit. That was in quality control, where we could move a checklist type of operation into a tool that you’re wearing. In other areas we found out as we went along, hey, we didn’t really think about this application. But it looks like it has a real benefit.”
AGCO isn’t making any secret of the fact the Jackson plant has been raking in some prestigious awards in the manufacturing community lately. And while the use of Google Glass is one factor in that, the real reason for the plant’s success, according to Gulick and Fisher, comes from the overall attitude that exists both in the upstairs offices and down on the shop floor.
“A lot of it has to do with the culture here in Jackson,” says Fisher. “What I mean by that is since the mid ’90s on, you have always had an engaged workforce, one that has had the desire and openness to change and improve the business. When you’ve got that asset, all you have to do is steer them down a path and you can really evolve an operation. And that’s really what has happened over the last 10 or 20 years.
“Last year alone we had close to 4,000 ideas implemented by our employees. Obviously some of those are small ideas, simple things, and some are big. That’s over four ideas per employee that we’re giving them time to implement and fix.”
“We pride ourselves on having a lean culture, a problem-solving culture,” adds Gulick.
As a result of the successful introduction of Google Glass in Jackson, its use will be, or has already been, implemented in a number of the brand’s other plants. And representatives from other manufacturers in a variety of sectors have been coming to Jackson to see how the technology might be imported into their facilities.
“We’re holding tech tours right now for other companies to let them come in and see what we’re doing,” says Gulick.
Fisher adds that due in large part to the ongoing digital transformation, the environment on the line is now almost unrecognizable from what existed there when he first walked through the door in 1994.
“It has been an incredible metamorphosis,” Fisher says. “If you go back 25 years, this operation was more of a large blacksmith shop, and it’s really grown into a world-class manufacturer.”