Manufacturing Execution System • June 24, 2020

3 Ways to Increase Agility in Manufacturing Operations

3 Ways to Add Flexibility to Manufacturing Operations

As we approach the halfway point of 2020, it has certainly been a year of surprises and adjustments that have been required at a breakneck speed. With so much uncertainty, organizations are struggling to adapt. For example, staffing shortages and retention challenges in late 2019 changed to massive layoffs and furloughs in 2020. As the world now assesses how to best ramp up, new hiring practices will be more complicated. An old trend has re-emerged – how to quickly add flexibility to manufacturing operations. 

The repercussions from 2020 will be felt for many years. Based on an economic analysis completed by the Pew Research Center, unemployment in the U.S. rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession of 2008/9.  The rate shot up from 3.8% in February to 13.0% in May, representing 20.5 million Americans now out of a job.

A challenge that organizations now face is how quickly they can ramp up operations, given the recent lifting of restrictions. Conversely, as I am writing this article, new reports are coming out showing spikes upward in new cases in states that opened early. These spikes could put at risk the progress achieved over the past 15-30 days. All in all, the level of volatility in today’s business environment is extreme. A new approach to improve operational flexibility is desperately needed.

2020: The Year of Agility. 

Not only has the disruption from the coronavirus made it difficult to plan manufacturing operations output, but many of those laid off or furloughed also may never return to their former positions. This represents a vast amount of institutional knowledge that has effectively walked out the door. The degree to which companies cope with this situation may well determine who wins or loses in the long run. It is all about how rapidly an organization can change without disrupting production or output. 

Three Tactics to Improve Agility Across Manufacturing Operations 


1. Digital Knowledge Capture & Dissemination  

Workers that were laid off walk right out the door – including all the specialized knowledge they have learned. When it comes to staffing back up, the potential for losing this valuable know-how is real. Those operating in high turnover industries have already adjusted. The use of digital documentation is a great way to ensure business continuity. This knowledge can be continuously updated on a go-forward basis. This need is critical in an environment where production processes and schedules are adjusting on a day-to-day basis. 

2. Directed Work Instructions

By digitalizing what had previously been lengthy manual processes, personnel no longer need years of experience to compile mechanical and electrical controls. This enables organizations to streamline processes to create more efficient, compliant internal operations while saving thousands of hours in manual data entry. The growing popularity of Smart Glasses on the shop floor is a great example of how digital work instructions can be delivered quickly and safely, updated as often as needed. Read about this new Augmented Reality capability now available as an integrated process within an iBase-t or other solution. 

3. Mobile Enablement

The Pew Research Center’s analysis of the unemployment numbers reveals that not all workers were impacted equally. The unemployment rate in May was lowest among workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher education (7.2%), the only group among those examined not to experience an unemployment rate in the double digits (source). A driving factor for this disparity is the significance of teleworking in keeping people on the job. 

Manufacturers could benefit significantly by incorporating remote working as part of the production process. Of course, not all tasks could be done this way. But a higher proportion is possible than what is currently being exercised. With the right digital platform in place, it is not difficult to perform monitoring and scheduling updates remotely. IT support teams can certainly perform these tasks – even more so when their enterprise architecture is located on the cloud. Those manufacturers with remote workers over the past few months would have been in a much better position to retain more of their highly trained staff, the output could have continued at a higher level, and the economic impact from the downturn might not have been quite as substantial.

The Race to Recovery 

When we do make it through the current crisis, much productivity will have been lost. But the ability of an organization to adapt quickly to staffing changes could speed up their recovery. It is essential for companies to embrace a new mantra for 2020 – improve operational agility. Now is the time to remove manual data re-entry towards becoming a digital enterprise. Automated, graphical work instructions and pop-up videos can better guide (new) personnel through the complex steps required in performing their daily tasks (as they learn their jobs). The result is a simplification of the expansion or contraction of your workforce, depending upon what winds of the COVID-19 crisis are blowing at any given week. 

With the groundwork laid for digitalization, many areas of the organization benefit: real-time validation of processes, improved configuration management, heightened shop floor execution, integrated supply chain management, and greater shop floor automation. Taken together, it has quickly become clear that the need for flexibility across manufacturing operations is critical to best navigate the continuing gyrations of 2020.

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