Video in the Factory – The objections no longer apply

For 20+ years I have heard objections to the use of video surveillance technology to routinely view and record factory (and warehouse) operations. Setting aside the fact that every facility routinely records security video, it is common to hear that “cameras are not allowed” or “we don’t want to record our workers”. Too often, the result blocks the use of one of the cheapest and most powerful tools for conducting process investigations. IMO, companies are spending large sums on continuous improvement … with one hand tied behind their back.


Reason 1 – It would demoralize my workforce.

No one wants to work under the gaze of “big brother”. The industrial history of outsiders coming in to do “time studies”, then raising rates and lowering wages creates a long and well-validated concern. For a worker, there are enough ways that the company can fire them. Giving the company the ability to “pull up the video” and cherry-pick every mistake only makes that threat more fearsome. If anyone went back through weeks of video recording me trying to do my job, I’m sure they could find enough snippets to assemble a highlight reel of “worst mistakes”. If there are no cameras, presumably that can’t happen.

Losing the motivation and trust of the workforce is a high price to pay for a few improvements in production operations.  But there’s a fairly simple solution: be careful where you point the cameras! Aim them at the critical parts and control points on the equipment. When a worker makes a mistake, they usually remember it. Ask them what happened and their memory will supply useful clues. By contrast, if a piece of equipment messes up and no one is watching (which may be most of the time), now you have a detective mystery. Those take longer to investigate and there’s no guarantee  that the case will ever be solved. Wouldn’t it be helpful to review footage from an HD camera that was focused on the point of suspected failure? If you install a video surveillance system and make a point of aiming at the mechanical process instead of the people, it should be less threatening. The following video records the operation of a device that extrudes balls of dough onto a conveyor. Most of the time it works fine, but if there is a problem, you might see something useful on a video like this. Maybe some are not ejected in unison. Maybe there is a buildup of residue at one location. Maybe …

Are there any other critical control points that you can watch without seeming like big brother? I believe that these are some ideas:

  • Aim an HD camera with a tight shot of a machine’s control panel. Yes, you will may see a hand in the frame from time to time, but control panels are where a lot of mistakes happen. They are also where machine readings appear that may hold vital clues. This is especially true with stand-alone machines … at least until Industry 4.0 arrives.
  • Mount an HD camera inside equipment to watch critical operations. That may require some engineering, and possibly periodic cleaning, but you may see wobbles and mis-alignments and tool wear and strange cuttings that are revealing. Floor staff probably can’t see this very well in any event.
  • Mount an HD camera to watch transfer points, especially if robots are involved. A small shift in timing or choreography may hold a vital clue.

Today, IP cameras and recording devices are cheap, reliable and easy to relocate. I would install a few to watch likely suspects and see what shows up. Based on the results, move the cameras around to get a better view, or move them somewhere else. Time and experience should push the configuration toward something fairly useful.

My last point is mostly speculation. There is an unfortunate history in manufacturing of blaming operators for production failures. Hopefully, there are now relatively few plants where this attitude comes from management, but it only takes one or two insecure supervisors to create a localized culture of fear. Having a trustworthy video record for every unit produced might protect workers as often as it proves their responsibility. Plus, the truth is generally easier to accept than an unfair accusation.

Reason 2 – The camera might prove I’m liable.

Manufacturers are always concerned about liability for product defects. This is exacerbated because the liability differs according to where the mistake occurred. There are three major categories:

  • Design Defects – These tend to come back on the manufacturer (unless they are purely a contract supplier), but there is room to argue the merits of the case. Maybe the design was OK, but the end-use encountered a situation that could not have been anticipated. Maybe the “defect” is a matter of opinion. Everyone has heard the term “it’s a feature, not a bug”. Your lawyers may have some room to operate.
  • End-User Misuse – The product was designed well and made exactly to the design, but the customer used the product in an way that designers didn’t anticipate. There is lots of room for your lawyers to maneuver. You might have to change the design or add a warning label, but this is usually not a big deal.
  • Manufacturing Defects – US tort law views manufacturing defects as situations of “strict liability”. If the product was not manufactured according to its intended design, the manufacturer is liable. End of story. For a manufacturer, their most hopeful situation is that they will be guilty until proven innocent … and it will take something pretty extraordinary to prove the innocence.

Clearly, the scary scenario for companies is to sell a product that is defective in manufacture. That automatically puts a company in tort lawyers’ cross hairs. Giving plaintiff’s attorney videos of the actual unit being made might be the nail in the coffin. Better if we never recorded any video … right?

Well, I wonder. First, if you ban the use of video to make production improvements, your odds of finding yourself in this situation get worse … because you are more likely to make a defective product to begin with. Second, the concept of strict liability says that you probably can’t deny it happened. If anything, a video might subtly help your defense. Suppose it shows that the product was correctly made. Perhaps it was damaged further down the distribution chain and it is not a manufacturing defect at all … case closed.  Alternatively, perhaps the video will show that careful steps were taken to avoid the defect, but a fluke let the mistake get by. Your exposure for direct damages will remain, but your exposure to punitive damages may go down.

Regardless, this is all an exercise in speculation about an highly uncertain future. Perhaps. Maybe. If this, then that. What is certain is that your production processes can be improved right now … and a robust video surveillance system could help. That is money in the bank today.

Reason 3 – Someone might steal the video and our IP

Everyone in industry has been to a conference where they arranged a plant tour and every tour included a warning to not use a camera. The reason, I suggest, is the tour hosts are counting on your memory being flawed. You might be amazed by something you see, but you won’t remember it clearly enough to steal it directly. At best, you can note it and eventually re-engineer it with your own people.

So that means we shouldn’t use video in the plant at all … in case our precious IP leaks out.

Huh? The video systems I am discussing are the same video security technology that every plant deploys liberally to protect their product. Every plant has cameras watching doors, break rooms, shipping docks, tool cribs, and … sometimes even bathrooms. It isn’t focused on the company’s precious production methods, but it is considered safe because it is installed, monitored and used in-house. The video is not walking out on a smartphone. It is on a server that the company totally controls.

If you use standard security video technology to monitor and record your production processes (which is what I am advocating), you can control the distribution of that video as tightly as with your security video. You can control who has credentials to view the video and to export subclips from the archive. In many ways, it is easier to set up a control system than for your paper documents … just as a matter of size and logistics. I can attach a 20MB Word design document to an email or put it on a thumb drive easier than I can transfer 2 or 4GB of MP4 video. If someone wants to steal your IP, there are easier ways than dipping into your raw operational surveillance video … like maybe hire one of your employees?

The objections against using video will weaken as we migrate towards more automation (Industry 4.0?). In heavily automated plants, cameras will see less and less of the IP. Most of it will be in data such as CAD files, NC programs and supplier product specs. Protecting that is a huge issue, but it falls well outside video use in the factory.

Finally, let’s say you have a super-secret, incredible process step that you don’t want to ever be seen on video. Do what companies have been doing forever. Hang drapes around the process and check the camera setups to be sure they can’t see inside. Done.

Reason 4 – “We don’t understand how to use video”

This, I suspect, is the most common and most understandable reservation. Why should you invest in a video surveillance system when you don’t have the time, the skills or the inclination to use whatever it will capture? I believe I can answer this objection, but it requires re-thinking the problem a bit.

The first step is to make a clear distinction between the two operating modes for video surveillance systems.

  • One mode is to do real-time monitoring. You hire people to sit and watch a bank of video feeds, possibly with some automated alerting. When they see something, they respond to it or report it. This is NOT the mode that I advocate for use in operations improvement. I don’t know any senior plant personnel that have time to sit and watch video feeds for the equipment and processes in their plant. Instead, they will spend their time walking around and working with their staff.
  • The second mode is to record everything, all the time, so you can go back at your leisure and see what actually happened. This is, in effect, a “time machine” for process analysis. I believe this is the mode that holds great promise for process improvement. If nothing happened today, you can ignore the system. If a bunch of defectives show up at final inspection, you can review the video to watch those specific units transit every stage of their production journey.

If we focus on the second, “forensic” usage, video is less intimidating. You only deal with it when you have a compelling reason to make the effort. The rest of the time, you can blithely ignore its existence. The surveillance systems are designed run continually, with little or no maintenance. They will fill up their hard drives with video until they run out of space and then they will overwrite the oldest footage. A system like that can run for months unattended … but always ready if you need it.

If we can just get systems installed for this basic forensic purpose, that will simultaneously record large volumes of video that could be used for many other purposes. Some of the footage might make great training material. There could be good material for engineering or production studies. Video is great if you want to count stuff or measure times and speeds. No need to set up new equipment or cameras … just extract the footage you already have.

This will buy time for organizations to ease into the possibilities for using video. Small wins can lead to new ideas. People can learn and use their imagination. In other words, “build it and they will come”.

Finally, if you build it and you still need some ideas … call us.


I have tried to raise and counter the objections I have heard most often over the past 20+ years. I know the concerns are sincere and the fears are real. I hope this is a decent start to discussions that will lead to safe, productive use of this amazing capability.

Can you help?

I’m not an employee, partner, investor or reseller for Dartfish, but they are kindly letting me play with it to explore any non-sports uses I can cook up. I am willing to play with videos sent to me by others as long as they don’t hold me to a deliverable timeline and they give me permission to post useful pieces on the blog.