Digital Thread • August 6, 2020

3 Ways Manufacturers are Relying Upon Digitalization in Response to the Coronavirus

3 Ways Manufacturers are Relying Upon Digitalization in Response to the Coronavirus

A new paper by McKinsey, “Managing a Manufacturing Plant Through the Coronavirus Crisis,” makes it clear that effective digitalization solutions are needed more than ever to help manufacturers cope with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Many changes have been implemented or modified over the past few months as virtually every organization adjusts to how business gets done. For the manufacturing industry, greater reliance on digital operations has grown critical to surviving. 

There are three ways manufacturers are adapting to the “new normal” of today’s coronavirus conditions – each involving the adoption of digitalization strategies to overcome the business conditions that the coronavirus now requires: 

  1. How will your workforce be suitably protected?
  2. What can be done to manage risk more effectively?
  3. How do you drive greater productivity? 

1. Protect the Workforce

Many companies have formalized processes, procedures, and tools to address the immediate situation, aimed at keeping personnel safe. What may be missing, however, is a longer-term view of how the business world is going to be re-shaped by current events. 

Once the pandemic is over, it is highly likely that manufacturers will be expected to develop comprehensive policies concerning hygiene, personal protective equipment (PPE), physical distancing, and workflows. McKinsey listed possible areas of attention such as health surveillance, minimization of communal tools, equipment sanitization, deep cleans, and revised sick leave guidelines. 

On the regulatory front, the aerospace, defense, and medical device manufacturing industries could see an introduction of new rulings on areas such as mandatory sick pay and stricter limitations on product and personal contact.

It is reasonable to assume that assembly lines will be overhauled. Team structures are probably going to be altered to restrict the volume of personal contact. The number of hands touching a component or system are also likely to be greatly reduced. This has repercussions in areas such as maintenance, shift organization, supervision, management, and quality control. 

Digital systems will play a central role in this reorganization. By continuing to increase the productivity of each individual worker, technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning will continue to be invested in to drive productivity such that few workers will be needed “on-premises” or in close proximity to each other. 

2. Better Manage Risk

Risk management has always been a core element of manufacturing and other operations. But its importance just ramped up a notch or two. Top management is looking to digitalization strategies in the coronavirus era to anticipate trends, model responses to market fluctuations, and prevent unnecessary economic exposure. 

See this related article: “Reduce the Risk of an MES Deployment by Thinking like a Venture Capitalist.”

The need to re-evaluate risk ties into the rise of the remote workforce. Many office workers who currently find themselves working from home may never return to the office. Businesses are realizing that many functions do not need to be onsite – nor does every software application, including those directly tied to ensuring production activities are completed. 

In addition, supervisory, management, maintenance, and quality control personnel may find themselves denied free access to areas of the factory flow. Instead, remote management and inspection software as well as virtual and augmented reality (AR) tools will be introduced in greater numbers to contain risk and automate processes.

3. Continue to Drive Productivity 

Despite going through a global pandemic, manufacturers must always be keeping an eye on productivity improvement – albeit some of this focus may have taken a back seat given today’s environment. Nonetheless, a time will come when this topic will come back up. It is always vital to effectively manage plant and organization performance.

Physical distancing may remain in place for some time – even after it is deemed no longer necessary to arrest the pandemic. The reality is that the threat from a global pandemic is now much more widely understood. Some companies may permanently rearrange the workplace to reduce worker interaction in anticipation of the next outbreak. But this must be done in a way that does not inhibit productivity. 

Further, remote work policies introduced in the early days of the pandemic could well continue in many organizations. Instead of a self-contained office environment onsite to oversee manufacturing operations, the onsite ranks are likely to be thinned down. Functions such as graphics design, planning, administration, account management, and other roles may be moved to a home office setting, at least part of the time. Digitalization initiatives, therefore, will be ramped up to support such changes.  


The Acceleration and Elevation of Digitalization Programs

Many of these changes were already in the process of being implemented or under evaluation. The coronavirus has now accelerated the need to move digitalization strategies forward in many manufacturing environments. Remote management applications, smart glasses, augmented reality-based maintenance, remote monitoring of equipment, predictive analytics to detect problems in advance to isolate trends, video conferencing and collaboration apps, digital twins, online learning, and workforce scheduling software are a few of the technologies that are expected to be increasingly deployed. 

Specific to the manufacturing floor, no manufacturing application or system can operate in isolation. Such applications will be upgraded to support end-to-end digitalization of core plant processes. These applications must be able to seamlessly share information – not just within the enterprise but with customers and supply chain partners, too. 

In the end, we are all going through an enormous transformation that will result in a new baseline of expectations on how manufacturing activities are performed. Hopefully, from all the lessons learned, we will get to a better place with regards to workforce safety, risk management, and process improvement. At least in time for the next global disruption, which I suspect will not be too far in the future! 

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