Remote Manufacturing: Redefining the Skilled Workforce

February 2024

Remote work is transforming the manufacturing industry and its skilled human workforce.

The advent of remote work has revolutionized the performance and production of industries. In the medical field, for example, teleoperated robotic surgery has been a viable method for more than two decades. In teleoperation, the cognitive skills of humans can be integrated with the physical abilities of a robot. This technology, once used for one type of surgery, now has more than 70 clinical uses, and more than 55,000 surgeons have adapted from performing procedures in-person to now instantly operating on patients in other countries. The manufacturing industry is similarly adapting to new technology and a changing workforce. Traditional shift work on factory floors may be replaced by a vision of interconnected systems managed by skilled people working from the comfort of their homes at any time of the day. Automation must seamlessly transition from systems to tools as the workforce integrates with machinery in innovative ways.


Tele-Manufacturing is a new way to enable skilled workers to perform their jobs remotely. Using haptic control devices and real-time livestreaming video, a worker is immersed into a manufacturing process that is occurring at another location. A collaborative robot (co bot) or other form of automation at the manufacturing site responds in real time to the operator's movement of a stylus. Even though the process is remote, the operator is 100% in control. The functionalities of telepresence platforms enable different levels of presence to be achieved in remote environments. To enable Tele-Manufacturing, each manufacturing process is converted differently to respect its uniqueness in the remote environment. Tele-Manufacturing technologies include Tele-Welding™, Tele-Inspection™, Tele-Gouging™, and other telecontrolled manufacturing processes.


In Tele-Welding, an operator uses a local haptic stylus to control a remote cobot, which makes all welding motions. The operator is free to move the cobot and attached welding torch in any direction or orientation and at any speed. This free movement allows an experienced manual welder to directly transfer expertise in speed, motion, and weave pattern from the stylus device to the welding torch. The worker receives feedback from the welding operation and the surrounding environment through welding sensors, arc view cameras, and a real-time, livestreamed video of the entire process.


Arc gouging is used to remove an existing weld or to quickly remove large amounts of surface material to prepare a surface for another process. For the manual operator, arc gouging is challenging due to the high-pressure airflow used to blow the molten metal, which is noisy and creates significant molten debris. Tele-Gouging has the teleoperator control the electrode in all orientations, speeds, and positions depending on their skill level and preference. With the ability to quickly set an electrode feed rate and allow the cobot to automatically control motion, the gouging process is more user friendly. While operators can opt to take back control of the electrode feed rate at any time, they remain responsible for guiding and activating the movement of the cobot by using the haptic input device and viewing the video from an arc monitoring camera.


After a materials joining or a material removal process, inspection on some level may be required. Quickly after teleoperating the welding process, traditional nondestructive examination (NDE) is combined with remote automation to enable Tele-Inspection. Tele-Inspection allows skilled NDE technicians to inspect welds, surfaces, or corroded areas remotely, allowing inspections to be performed in difficult-to-reach locations or in environments dangerous to human health. Tele-Inspection using phased-array ultrasonic testing (PAUT) was developed by EWI and demonstrated for aerospace components, followed by Tele-Inspection using eddy current to assess corrosion mitigation techniques on a U.S. naval test ship. Each NDE method required specific adaptations to become telecontrolled. Different environmental sensors and different motion transformation schemes were needed to immerse an NDE technician into a remote inspection environment. In all the NDE methods that have been converted for teleoperation, the operator and the inspection process are integrated with the automation in unique ways to accomplish the inspection.

Teleoperation has evolved into a field combining different technologies and allowing users to have realistic perceptions of immersion in remote environments. Looking forward, Tele-Manufacturing brings the concept of telecommuting to the trades and other manually intensive jobs. Manufacturing efficiency will improve when workers with specialized skills can be matched with jobs in different locations. Tele-Manufacturing is redefining the traditional confines of the workplace as automation hardware becomes a tool in the hands of skilled remote workers.