The Manufacturing Executive Podcast Tracy Hansen

The Manufacturing Executive: Episode 7

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Episode show notes

Automation cannot replace human labor. Rather, the key is to augment the workforce by equipping humans with the technology they need to be more effective, more efficient, and safer.

Tracy Hansen, President of North America and Global CMO for ProGlove, a German maker of wearable digital interfaces and operations analytics for industry, joined this episode of The Manufacturing Executive show. She talked about the ways manufacturers need to pivot with technology as they look at how to emerge from this pandemic in one piece.

Here’s what we discussed with Tracy:

  • How wearable solutions can augment the human worker
  • Examples of the ways wearable technology improves safety, efficiency, and productivity
  • The wearable technology solutions executives should know about
  • …And what excessive automation looks like and how to avoid it.

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Transcript of Episode

Joe Sullivan:
Welcome to another episode of the manufacturing executive podcast. I’m Joe Sullivan, your host, and a co founder of the industrial marketing agency Gorilla 76. So if you’ve been listening to the first handful of episodes or so of the show, you’ve probably noticed that a majority have focused on marketing or sales related topics, but we’ve designed the podcast to cover growth from a variety of angles. And one of those angles is technology. So our guest today is at the forefront of that movement. And on that note, I’m super excited to introduce Tracy Hansen, president of North America and global CMO for ProGlove, a German maker of wearable digital interfaces and operations analytics for industry. Tracy brings more than two decades of strategic brand building experience at startups, scale ups and Fortune 500 firms to the role. She’s a student of disruptive innovation, championing ideas that stretch boundaries, mobilize teams, and deliver business breakthroughs. Tracy, welcome to the show.

Tracy Hansen:
Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.

Joe Sullivan:
Tracy. I found you through an article that you recently published on manufacturing.net back in May I think it was that covered some ideas about how manufacturers need to pivot as they look at how to emerge from this pandemic in one piece. And since then, I’ve connected with you and your team at ProGlove. And I had a chance to see your thinking behind some of the things that are going on in this industry 4.0 world we’re now living in and in particular, what caught my attention were some of your thoughts about this misconception that automation can replace human labor. And the argument I’ve seen from you and supported by high-profile business figures like Elon Musk and some of the biggest technology companies in the world, including Apple, is that human labor is still very essential. And the key is not to replace human labor, but instead to augment the workforce by equipping humans with technology, they need to be more effective and more efficient and safer. So I’m excited to unpack all this stuff with you today and sort of drawing your insights and experience for our listeners.

Tracy Hansen:
Wonderful. Glad to talk about all of this stuff.

Joe Sullivan:
Great. Yeah, I know it’s your world. So before we get into the thick of it though, I was wondering if you could just kind of give us a little bit of a quick background on ProGlove and also tell us a bit about your personal journey that brought you to where you are today.

Tracy Hansen:
Absolutely. So as you mentioned in the introduction and thank you for all of that, ProGlove is a german manufacturer, we’re based out of Munich. And we also are headquartered in Chicago. So we are a four or five year old company. We were founded after our co founders won the Intel make it wearable contest. It was an idea that they had germinating around how to make people in the assembly line and manufacturing more effective and more productive. And the thing that they made, the wearable device that they made is a wrap that you can put around your hands and I’ll show you, in case you use video.

Tracy Hansen:
They put it on your hand and very quickly have a scanner that is as light as a matchbox on the back of your hand, but has the power of data intelligence, realtime feedback, and really clear data capture on the manufacturing floor. So it shifted the focus away from how do I use all of these tools all around me into one wearable device that you can put on the back of your hand within seconds. And the team from there grew to be a multinational company with more than 500 companies using our product on the manufacturing and supply chain universe.

Joe Sullivan:
Wow. Super interesting. And then such a unique advancement. I’ve seen pictures of it. I haven’t seen or heard you talk about it yet though. And to think it’s that light and I mean, it makes a ton of sense.

Tracy Hansen:
One of my favorite analogies is when you think about scanners and anybody who’s assembling anything that has multiple parts is likely scanning and the supply chain. Everything we touch, eat, drink, wear has been scanned multiple times as scanning is as an integral part of our day to day operations. And the traditional handheld scanner weighs as much as a Volkswagen beetle at the end of a given shift. So you can imagine the stress that it puts on the human, who is working with these devices compared to something that weighs as much as a matchbox. So not just the ergonomics of it, but the human first human centered approach to technology is so crucial when we think about things like wearable devices.

Joe Sullivan:
Yeah. And so Tracy, what has sort of led you to ProGlove? Can you give a little background on sort of how you got to where you are today?

Tracy Hansen:
Sure. So in graduate school I had discovered just in time technology, just in time processes, Joseph Denning, the whole world. And wrote my thesis on ISO 9,000 and how to grow your business and move into quality and control and process. So my degree and my thesis was on ISO 9,000. And from there I moved into manufacturing. I worked at a hardware company called NetApp based out of Silicon Valley for about 15 years and had a chance to meet a gentleman named Andreas Koenig. Who’s a real leader and visionary and building business and bringing technology to market.

Tracy Hansen:
So after I left NetApp, I started to move into the startup space and into scale up businesses when Andreas called and said that he had discovered ProGlove, met the co founders and thought it was just a phenomenal organization that was poised to really bring something new and innovative to the market and wanting to break open those markets specifically North America. So he tapped me to join. I came about nine months ago and have really seen the opportunity that this company has to offer manufacturers, assembly lines, supply chain, you name it to do something great and innovative. Not just with the scanner, but with the software that we have behind it.

Joe Sullivan:
So the ProGlove sort of presence in the United States is relatively new still. Kind of in its infancy and you’re helping bring it to life.

Tracy Hansen:
Absolutely. Brand new. We started about two years ago here and really hit the ground running about 18 months ago. And the last year we’ve seen explosive growth in North America.

Joe Sullivan:
Interesting. What’s what’s your customer base look like? Just out of curiosity. Who are-

Tracy Hansen:
It has a lot of different factors. So we started in the assembly space. So automotive manufacturing in Germany. Some of our big customers are… Every major car manufacturer that you can think of, they are likely using the ProGlove scanning solution on their assembly line. BMW, Audi, Volkswagen, you name it. Then we moved into aviation. So companies like Lufthansa. Now we’re going deep in the retail space. So e-Commerce is exploding. So anybody who is with warehouse distribution and logistics, they’re finding great use for our technology. And we’re also seeing growth in healthcare. So both of the frontline healthcare in hospitals, in universities, as well as in the back office with the design and distribution of healthcare goods.

Joe Sullivan:
So we’re recording this in July of 2020, and we’re in the thick of everything going on with the pandemic. And I’m just kind of curious how does this fit into the mix and a wearable solution that sort of augments the human worker. Obviously healthcare is at the forefront of all that. I’m just kind of curious to hear you talk about that.

Tracy Hansen:
Sure, yes. So we’re in a very interesting time and starting at a new company, right? As we headed into the post COVID world or, I guess we’re still in COVID world, has been really interesting. And the challenges that we were talking about as a company in the early part of 2020 have shifted very dramatically. At the beginning of the year, we were looking at scale and innovation and deployment of new technology. Now, what we’re looking is how can I bring in technology that will speed up my operations, keep my employees safe, help me onboard and train new employees quickly and adeptly. How can I used technology to enhance the worker and in a time where safety is absolutely at the forefront of every operation leader’s mind. So the good news is we didn’t need to pivot too terribly strong in this whole universe, because from the very beginning, we were focused on the human. The human at the center of the workforce.

Tracy Hansen:
We’ve never strayed from that. And while it wasn’t our intention to have a solution for the environment we’re currently in, it naturally fit into this space because our customers, our prospects, the people that we talk to day in and day out are really challenged with shifting the business, to accommodate new requirements for health and safety for their employees. Bringing on new employees as they’re rapidly, spinning up robust e-Commerce solutions. I mean, you think about it as we shift to e-Commerce, you need more people to do the picking and the packing and the logistics and the delivery and so forth.

Tracy Hansen:
As we’re looking at our manufacturing and assembly teams, they’re looking at how can I have safe social distance? How can I make sure that I’m using a solution that is personal to me. So if I have wrap, that’s my wrap and I’m not sharing it with three other employees, is that safer? So our human centered design are focused on keeping employees safe, has always been a core part of our vision and our culture. And that’s what people are talking to us about now. And that’s what’s attracting them to these types of devices.

Joe Sullivan:
So a shift more, would you say to the safety focus than the increasing efficiency focus or is it a lot of both and just given how the business world has changed in a few months?

Tracy Hansen:
It’s a lot of both. Safety is first and foremost. We actually, and in all transparency, we had a few deals or customers that we were talking to where they’re like, Hey, we got to pump the brakes here. And then once we started to talk to them about the safety component or they came to us talking about the safety component of what they’re trying to implement, it became evident that the human first approach lent itself to the challenges that they were facing.

Tracy Hansen:
It’s so important to our customers and the people that we see in the field to care about their employees, to focus on what will make them efficient, yes of course, but safe in the environment that they’re working in. The second part is really around speed of adoption and speed of operation. So efficient, absolutely still a crucial, but as so many of us have had to pivot and do something different or faster than we had prior, the idea of complete digital transformation, complete overhaul of operations was put to the side and they wanted to look at what can I do to enhance the workforce I have and bring things up quickly without a lot of training, without a lot of complexity.

Tracy Hansen:
So ease of use was crucial because speed was paramount. And I’m sure like you, I’m sure like me, you’ve probably experienced a lot of… Because of COVID things are delayed, because of COVID things are slow. And that resulted in a lot of re-imagining of what needed to happen in assembly, in supply chain across the board. So it’s pretty pervasive. Those two things speed and safety are a recurring conversation that we have with almost everybody we speak with.

Joe Sullivan:
So could you get kind of tangible for listeners here and maybe talk about a few specific examples where wearable solutions that augment the human worker can help with either efficiency or safety or just helping productivity. Would love to hear some real, tangible examples that make this concrete.

Tracy Hansen:
Sure. So there’s a couple. So let’s start with the sharing of tools and assets. So making it wearable, instead of sharing a handheld scanner, right? So every time I’ve put it down and one of my coworkers picks it up, I had the potential to spread germs or to create an environment that is unsafe. And then the time it would take to clean everything between every single scan would become quite a slowing technique. When I have a wearable device, something that I’m putting on my body and it’s mine, I am now less room for contamination, less likely to unintentionally share a germ that I don’t want to with a coworker because it’s mine and it’s on me. Then the second thing that I would say is from a wearable safety standpoint, we introduced in our own floor, we’re a manufacturing company and assembly company as well. We create the devices on our own premises. We needed a mechanism to allow our assembly team to know when they were too close to somebody. So we created and innovated a proximity sensor.

Tracy Hansen:
So I had the wearable device and through our mechanisms of communication can either through optics, through sight, through audio or through haptic, so feeling, let somebody know if they’re too close to another coworker. We rolled it out on our floor. And then we realized our customers might need it too. So we made it free and available to all of our customers. They could download it right from our website at no additional charge. And then we extended that out to anybody who wanted to download our PG connect, our ProGlove connect solution but maybe it didn’t have our wearable device. So they could have it on a cell phone, something on their body, but not our scanner so that they could keep their employees safe. That’s the second thing.

Tracy Hansen:
And then the third thing around speeding things up and how does wearables speed things up? We introduced Mark Display, which has on the back of your hand an E ink reader that allows you to, as a wearer of our device, to see instantly what you need to do next, what’s the job to get done. So I don’t have to go back to a terminal somewhere on the picking floor or go back to an office to get a printout, to know what the next job to get done is saving vital minutes and sometimes seconds, every time I’m doing the job on the shop floor. So those are just three examples of how wearables can keep you safe and keep you moving faster.

Joe Sullivan:
That’s great. Now, along the lines of augmenting the worker, what other innovations are you seeing out there that executives should know about?

Tracy Hansen:
Wearable technology is pretty exciting. We’re so used to it as humans and consumers, whether it’s the Fitbit, the watch that you’re wearing, the phone that you’re carrying. We have it integrated into our daily lives. So if you bring that to the shop floor, you bring it to the manufacturing plant, and you start to realize that that wearable technology, when used in combination together can create such effective streamlined processes. You can start to envision having a human digital twin that creates a set of data that you can now, as an operations manager, see what’s happening on your floor every step of the way. The visual I like to use is when I have a truck come into my plant and I’m unloading the truck, I’m scanning things, I’m bending, I’m looking, I’m hearing different things. And if I have a wearable technology that is helping me as the worker, know where to put the pallet, where to put the box, and then as a peer comes, where to take the box to, how to assemble.

Tracy Hansen:
And all of the wearable technology that I have on is feeding me realtime information, giving me haptic feedback on if I’m going in the right direction or picking up the right box. It gives me the intelligence right there within my body to do the right thing, the next job that needs to get done in the right order. From a worker standpoint, it’s much more efficient, it’s less stress and trying to figure things out. From an operations manager perspective, it gives me the intelligence I need to know how to improve my production line, how to improve my operations, how to keep my workers again very healthy and safe, remove obstacles that get in their way or eliminate challenges that are placed in front of them that are unnecessary obstacles. As an executive looking to figure out what to do next I’m really hone in on the human and understanding what are the steps the human needs to take next, to be more effective, to be more efficient.

Tracy Hansen:
Years ago I read a book called the Mythical Man-Month. Are you familiar with it?

Joe Sullivan:
I’m not. No.

Tracy Hansen:
It’s a book by Fred Brooks and it’s this whole concept around adding more people to… Some people think, Oh, if I had a software project that I need to deliver against, I can add more people and that software project will get done faster, right? More people means faster. Well, when I look at what’s happening in this assembly floor and then the supply chain, I sometimes hear similar things like, Oh, if I add an automation, things will get faster. Things will move faster. And I kind of feel like we need to have a simple, a mythical man month concept, the mythical automation month if you will. Because really at the end of the day, it’s the human and our ability to respond and to think and to move the product forward, that creates the momentum and efficiency.

Tracy Hansen:
And when you think about automation and bringing automation into the assembly line, the manufacturing floor, the supply chain, you sometimes displaced the efficiency because the thinking is automation is going to solve all the problems, but really automation can create more challenges, different challenges. So our thinking is let’s focus on the human, let’s focus on what the processes are that they do and use wearable technology to move the needle faster. And that’s what I think executives need to really hone in on is using the assets they have and enriching that experience versus displacing those assets with things that will just introduce an entirely different set of complexity and challenges that might result in that mythical man month that doesn’t yield the results they’re looking for.

Joe Sullivan:
Yeah. I love that. So many things related to automation, I imagine sound perfect in theory. And then when you get into actually implementing them, you realize that it creates new hurdles and obstacles. And what you’re saying it makes a lot of sense. It’s a good sort of segue into the next few questions I have here. It’s one thing to augment a worker and another to attempt to fully automate or attempt to fully automate a process. And my understanding from what I’ve seen from you is that a lot of companies tend to run into these obstacles. And so, what does excessive automation look like from your perspective and how can executives avoid it?

Tracy Hansen:
Each business is different, right? Where some companies need automation and it could be excessive for a different business. So I think we need to look at these uniquely. If I were to say, Hey, I have an opportunity to go in and fully automate the entire environment and there’ll be no humans involved. I think that would give you great pause because even automation requires humans. You need technicians, you need process engineers, you need a different skillset certainly when you have automation. It’s just different. So when I think about what’s excessive, I think if it’s totally rotating over to we’re going to automate everything. Where I’ve seen successes… I’ve had an opportunity to go to a number of different warehouses and assembly floors now, and I’ve seen the balance of automation.

Tracy Hansen:
Where automation makes sense, where using systems and robotics to move the process forward makes sense is partnered with where the humans make sense, where is critical thinking required, where is more dexterity required. Those two things when balanced out create an incredibly efficient and elegant solution. So my recommendation for executives would be to find the balance. Anytime you say all or 100% or everything, you’re probably leaning towards excessive. If you’re looking at collaborative automation and human collaboration, you’re probably on the right path.

Joe Sullivan:
That’s a good answer. I read an interesting article the other day about Apple’s manufacturing process. And here you have the most profitable technology company in the world and one of the most technologically advanced companies probably in history and they’ve repeatedly failed to automate their production lines. Is sort of what I gathered from the article. And it’s led them to turn back to human labor time and time again. And so what do you think that failed attempts from even the biggest companies in the world like Apple can teach manufacturing executives about efficiencies, automation, the role of human labor, et cetera.

Tracy Hansen:
Yeah. The article you’re referring to is really insightful. And they’ve been trying now for close to a decade. I think they started in like 2012 with their partner in China to bring automation to life. And they were going to replace all the human workers with a million robots. What I love about that example, and I think we can learn from is that it’s okay to fail, right? It’s absolutely okay to fail and to attempt different ways to bring the automation to life. It’s okay to experiment. And I encourage it, I think it’s really important. It’s how we discovered the wearable solution, right? Prototyping, risk and attempting. What I think the best thing we can learn from the Apple example and from others I’ve seen is bringing humans in to the design stage. Bringing humans into the process. So they over-rotated, to my previous answer, they over-rotated to we’re going to do all robotics.

Tracy Hansen:
As we see they’re moving forward and others like them, as they’re realizing humans aren’t going away. Humans are part of the solution. How can we bring humans together with technology to create a solution that is efficient and effective. So I think the Apple example is perfect. I think their experimentation has shown us that humans are essential. And you mentioned Elon Musk earlier, same thing. I think they were trying to replace humans in all of their assembly lines for Tesla. Humans are essential. We cannot underestimate the role that humans play in assembly and manufacturing.

Joe Sullivan:
And I think that’s a great message to send. What I’m gathering from you here today to kind of wrap this up is that all the technology out there that is maybe feared by some, as a replacement for human labor it’s really, when used properly, it’s there to make people more effective and more efficient, to keep them safer. Is there any last things you’d say here to a manufacturing executive about just the importance of putting technology alongside workers rather than using it to replace them.

Tracy Hansen:
Just that. Technology is beautiful. Robotics are great. IOT, internet of things, is absolutely a way of the future. Artificial intelligence can be so powerful when implemented the right way. Humans aren’t going away nor is technology. And I think the insightful, innovative executive is going to be the one that can look at both and put them together in a way that is meaningful for whatever problem they’re trying to solve. So that that balance and the understanding that we need both is going to be the thing that will set the leading executive apart from the rest.

Joe Sullivan:
I love that. Well, Tracy, this was a super interesting and valuable conversation. I really love what you’re doing at ProGlove and the mindset you’re bringing to the industrial sector, especially during a super challenging time in the world for everybody out there really. Can you tell us the best place to find you online in case listeners would like to get in touch or learn more about ProGlove and about what it might be able to do for them?

Tracy Hansen:
Sure. The best place to find ProGlove is on our website ProGlove.com. You can also find us on LinkedIn. We’re very active and love having conversations with our industry peers on LinkedIn. And you can find me on LinkedIn as well, Tracy Hansen.

Joe Sullivan:
Beautiful. Well Tracy, thank you so much for taking the time to join us on the manufacturing executive. It was a pleasure having you on here.

Tracy Hansen:
Thanks, Joe. It was delightful.

Joe Sullivan:
Great. To the rest of you, we hope to see you next time.

Speaker 2:
You’ve been listening to the manufacturing executive podcast. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you’d like to learn more about industrial marketing and sales strategy, you’ll find an ever expanding collection of articles, videos, guides, and tools specifically for B2B manufacturers at gorilla76.com/learn. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time.

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