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Paving the way for shop floor diversity

By Sonali Mulay, Director and Head of Tools Production, Sandvik Coromant Pune,

Added 27 April 2023

The article explains the many initiatives the company is taking to ensure a more secure future for women in manufacturing.

Sonali Mulay

Sudha Murthy may be well-known as a writer and philanthropist, but one of her earlier steps on the career ladder was as engineering firm TATA's first female engineer. Working for the TATA Engineering and Locomotive Company (TELCO) in Pune, she famously landed the role after complaining to the company's chairman about its previously male-only policy. With an increasing number of manufacturing companies in India looking at inducting more women on the shop floor, we look at how Sandvik Coromant's Pune manufacturing site is inspiring a more diverse, inclusive shop floor environment.

Women make up only 12 per cent of India's manufacturing sector, which employs 27.3 million people, according to a 2021 estimate by GE. This lack of diversity was noticeable in Pune, and indeed across India, and historically there were hardly any women working on the shop floor.

This was largely due to certain government restrictions that made working flexible shifts difficult for women. In 1948, India put the Factories Act into place, which meant women could only workday shifts between 6 am and 7 pm. However, the regulations have changed in recent years, and employers now can enable women to work more flexibly. And it seems that the tide is turning. With greater flexibility and measures to make women feel safer and better supported, Sandvik Coromant's Pune facility has seen its number of female workers increase from 4 per cent to 20 per cent since 2020.

Shifting perceptions

The manufacturing environment has long been considered unsafe and unsanitary; a shop floor full of dirty, heavy equipment that needed to be manually always operated. This was the mindset of many people working in Pune and, being an area rich in IT companies, local women in the workforce have typically favoured jobs in software over manufacturing.

While laws in India have changed, meaning women can work all shifts available to them, for quite some time their legacy continued and only men were recruited in workshops. To foster an environment with more females working in production, Sandvik Coromant Pune developed a prerequisite when recruiting new shop floor workers, so that at least ten women work on the shop floor at any given time. While progress is being made, it's important we paint an accurate picture of today's production facilities, which are a far cry from common connotations of shop floors many people still conjure up.

The Sandvik Coromant production site in Pune is a modern and highly automated production facility that looks more like those IT companies than those misconceptions of a machine shop floor. A virtually silent manufacturing process with automation at each step, there's a digital thread running through the plant, from inventory management, all the way through to machine performance and predictive maintenance. Smart automation with ultra-flexible robots, machines, tools and fixtures performs complex touchless tool changeovers without human workers needing to manually interfere. Increasingly, sensors are fitted to equipment in the plant, collecting data around parameters such as pressure, temperature, vibration, and acoustics. This data, combined with sophisticated analytics, can reveal patterns and problems before downtime occurs.

As well as changing how the shop floor works, the technologies of Industry 4.0 are changing the way our people work, too. Increased automation frees up time that would otherwise be spent on manual, repetitive tasks, so that team members can turn their attention to more diverse, engaging work. Technology also makes the workplace safer for employees, which is equally important to the worker experience. Sensors can alert people when they're entering a potentially dangerous area, the moment they get too close to a piece of equipment or could even be fitted onto a shop floor worker as a wearable to monitor their own health parameters.

There's also a greater opportunity to upskill the workforce. A recent Gartner report found that 84 per cent of manufacturing professionals were upgrading their learning and development programs, as machine operatives get to grips with new CAD and CAM software, predictive analytics and 3D modelling of machine setups. Before you know it, responsibilities on the machine shop floor don't look all that different from the roles in those lust-after IT organizations.

Reclaiming the night

The first call to action of many manufacturers wanting to diversify their workforce is changing those outdated perceptions. But, to attract and maintain talent, several other practical steps should be taken too. As well as taking steps to hire more women at Pune, Sandvik Coromant has developed several initiatives to create a safer and better-supported working environment.

Sandvik Coromant has also organised transportation to and from work for its female employees. The specially hired bus is equipped with a GPS tracking system as well as a CCTV camera to enhance safety and is trailed by a security guard. Once female workers reach the facility, they are escorted to their door by the security guard and can register that they have reached home safely through a digital app.

Since 2010, the production unit has supported employees with children with an onsite day-care centre. Open to any employee with a child aged up to six years old, the centre acts as a vital support system for working parents. Children are cared for by a partnering children care organisation, have access to onsite catering and are just moments away should their parents wish to visit them while on a shift break.

As Oxfam India's India Discrimination Report 2022 reveals that gender-based discrimination is the reason for 98 per cent of the employment gap between salaried males and females in urban areas across the country. It's vital that employers offer support that reaches beyond the walls of the factory floor. Implementing safety measures and providing childcare should not be seen as workplace bonuses, but rather steps that are essential to take if we're to truly welcome a diverse workforce.

Murthy is a source of inspiration for many female engineers — who dared to challenge the status quo of the time. However, overcoming the nationwide challenge of gender diversity in the workplace also requires action from employers. India's workforce is starting to see change, and we're moving in a positive direction at Sandvik Coromant, but that good work needs to continue if we're to welcome more women into manufacturing in India. The shop floor isn't what it was even five years ago, and it's time our workforce reflected this progress.

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