Workplace design strategies to deal with the new normal

Friday, May 15, 2020

At the onset of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, Stephen Colbert mused, “This is a crisis that we have to face together—by staying as far apart as possible.” Now, health experts are stating that we will likely be practicing social distancing and other preventive measures for months or perhaps years. 

Given that we typically let the product design and equipment requirements dictate spacing in our manufacturing lines, how do we quickly and safely address social distancing needs, increased absenteeism, and working with a reduced workforce under phased re-employment mandates?

Below are three proven approaches from the manufacturing experts at COE. We start with the quickest and cheapest to implement and progress to longer-term solutions.

1. Start with what you have.

One of the most effective ways to quickly improve a process and introduce some level of staffing flexibility is to rearrange your manufacturing lines from a linear shape to cells, or to segment your lines into smaller groups of machines. Rearranging is also an opportunity to try a “one-piece flow” or one small batch at a time approach. By doing this, you will have implemented a key enabler to running the process with different staffing levels.  And who knows, you may even free up benches or material-handling devices for your other lines!

Figure 1: U-Cell redesign (

If you have workbenches that aren’t connected to each other but are either too close together or facing each other, you can rearrange the benches to provide the recommended six foot distance, move your operators a seat or two away, or add clear plastic barriers.

Figure 2: CDC Graphic on Layout Best Practices (

The point of all these activities is to get fast results (within days, not months) with little-to-no cost, increase worker safety, and enable the flexibility you will need to address the likely increase in absenteeism, phased re-employment, and increased variability in customer order volumes for the foreseeable future.

2. Next, add some simple material-handling devices.

If your process manufactures heavier parts or you don’t want to carry parts between socially distanced workbenches, there are a few simple steps you can take.

Push Carts

The easiest option to implement is fixed height push carts. These readily available devices come in a variety of sizes, styles, and weight capacities to suit a variety of products and processes. Good, basic options for industrial use are relatively inexpensive at $100-350. By choosing the appropriate height for your workplace, you will increase both the ergonomics and productivity of your process.

Figure 3: Example $100 Utility Cart (

A final consideration is that you will need to plan for multiple carts between workstations so that your operators aren’t waiting for the carts to return.

Push or Slide the Parts

An alternative to push carts is to place a bench or table between your workstations and slide or roll the material manually. However, this approach does require figuring out how to protect the parts from hitting each other or the floor. One simple solution is to put them into containers (tote, tray, box, etc.) before sliding them. If you add a simple gravity-roller conveyor (skate-wheel or line-shaft style) section to the table top, it’s easier to control how far and at what speed the parts move.

Figure 4: Skate-wheel conveyor and tote example (

An entry level industrial bench-plus-conveyor section is relatively inexpensive ($200 -350), but will require some design time to insure the proper fit to your process.

Gravity conveyor options

If your production volumes are modest-to-high or your parts are heavy or bulky, then a full gravity conveyor system may work better. As previously discussed you would typically use containers to insure no part-on-part contact and also allow irregular shapes to roll. Some design choices to be made include: adjustability of the device, working heights, skate-wheel vs. line-shaft rollers, curved vs. flexible vs. straight, colors, and return features (or not).

Figure 5: Line-shaft conveyor with return feature example (


Figure 6: Pipe, connector and roller system example (


A myriad of choices are available at modest prices generally in the $400-1200 range for a five-foot long, 18-inch-wide device with container return. Lead times after order can be as short as a week or two to get the unassembled parts, longer if the device comes pre-assembled or is a custom design.

3. Finally, add power.

If the simpler solutions are ineffective or unfeasible, there are other solutions that could allow you to ensure distance between people, reduce lifting and carrying, reduce cycle times, and even work side-by-side with your team.

Powered conveyors

For high-volume processes, bulky and heavy products, or longer distances, a powered conveyor system may be the right solution.  These systems can also be used without containers. However, if you use containers and want to return them via conveyor, a second device would be needed.

Some design choices include: motor type and capacity, reversible vs. one-way travel, belt vs. chain vs. line-shaft top surface, curved vs. straight, and sensor-beam auto-stop/start vs. foot/hand control.

Figure 7: Six foot Belt Conveyor example (


Figure 8: Five foot long Roller Conveyor example (

A powered conveyor section is somewhat expensive at $2200 or more for a roller style and $4300 or more for belt styles. These also require some design time to insure the proper fit into your process. Lead times are measured in weeks and months for these devices. They are fairly common devices, and so previously owned options may be available through an equipment broker.

Collaborative robots (“Cobots”)

If faced with the dual challenge of re-orientating or moving parts and machine tending, then a cobot is worth considering. These machines can work side-by-side with your team in the same workspace or independently.

Some design choices include: arm-payload capacity, reach, number of axes, programming interface, operating system (open-source vs. proprietary), one or two arms, gripper types, and mounting style (table top, stand, cart, hanging, etc.).


Many choices are available from established industrial robotics companies to more cobot–focused manufacturers, often with local sales and support resources. Prices are typically $20,000-50,000 per station, depending upon design specifications.  Lead times after order are typically measured in months.

Need help navigating through all the choices?  Contact us.