MANUFACTURING IN THE POST-COVID WORLD
Ok, at the time of writing (Sep 2021), we’re still living in the Covid world, and the indications are that we will be indefinitely, so the term “post-Covid” really means “now that we’ve got over the worst”; however that wouldn’t have been as snappy a title.
As we all know, since March 2020, the world has lived through the most severe pandemic in recent history, and many families and businesses have suffered greatly. Much has been written on the personal tragedies around the world, and this article is, in no way, meant to diminish the traumas that many people experienced due to Covid.
While the negatives of Covid will be discussed in the coming years and future history books, we would also like to try and take some positives from this episode. And, as manufacturing is our subject of expertise, this article will focus on the positives for the manufacturing sector.
Manufacturing after Covid
During the lockdowns, most companies suffered. However, some suffered less and even thrived. Why?
There were some obvious reasons, for example, companies involved in the manufacture of PPE where demand for their products went stratospheric and government contracts were handed out without the usual, time-consuming scrutiny.
Similarly, large pharmaceutical manufacturers were able to produce and supply vast quantities of vaccines in partnership with governments and research institutions.
But what about all the other companies? Why were some of them able to weather the Covid storm better than others?
Studies have clearly shown that early adopters (i.e. pre-2019) of Industry 4.0 were able to adapt quickly to the unique circumstances caused by the pandemic.
For example, a company that had made a “digital twin” of its manufacturing business was able to run multiple virtual scenarios to study the impact of operational closures or supply chain disruption across their product lines. In doing that, they created a set of contingency plans they could implement at short notice as the situation changed.
Another company making PPE built a new factory and optimized it through augmented reality to speed up the installation and move to maximum productivity in a short timescale.
(Source: McKinsey & Company, Jan 2021)
In fact, Covid has created a new measure for the effectiveness of an Industry 4.0 implementation: how quickly can an organization react to a sudden shock to its “normal” operations.
In many respects, Covid has been a wake-up call for those businesses deliberating over Industry 4.0 and whether it will benefit their organization. The overwhelming answer is yes.
Those that had started some kind of implementation then tried to ramp it up during the pandemic found that their underlying IT and OT systems were lacking. As such, it has given them the impetus to fix these fundamental issues before proceeding with their Ind 4.0 journey.
As we move into the post-Covid world, one feature of the lockdowns – home working – looks set to remain. It could even be that history will show the pandemic as creating the most significant shift in working habits since the industrial revolution.
Many companies adjusted to remote working relatively quickly. Until then, it had, pretty much, been the realm of the freelancer and, although there had been a growing movement for better home/work balance, most companies had resisted the requests for flexible or home working. The general assumption was that people wouldn’t work effectively if they weren’t in the office. (Realistically, many bosses probably didn’t trust their staff and wanted to keep control, although they’d never say that out loud).
However, with no other option, office-based businesses used technology to allow all their staff to work from home. And it seems to have worked well. Very well, in fact, with many reporting an increase in productivity and happier employees. Moreover, as the requirement for social distancing and remote working moved from mandatory to recommended status, many have adopted a permanent hybrid arrangement with a mix of home and office working.
Interestingly, reports from the recruitment industry show that flexible and home working are now critical factors in a candidate’s decision to join a company.
All of that was fine in an office environment, but it wasn’t quite so straightforward in the manufacturing industry.
Traditionally, manufacturing companies are designed to operate with people in crucial positions on-site. As such, their IT infrastructure extends as far as the factory walls. However, Covid taught us that they have to extend that infrastructure out to wherever their staff are located.
Using software like QIS to give the decision-makers live-streaming data from their production processes is critical. Having real-time data allows managers to make instant decisions and feed them back into the process. It’s another core part of an Industry 4.0 implementation, along with increased use of automated production systems.
And this has been one of the fundamental changes from Covid. Rather than looking for software, management teams focused on the outcomes and results they wanted then worked back to find the right software solution. Like a professional buyer, they had to define their problem(s) then educate themselves on the available solutions. As a software vendor, we feel this change in mindset is critical to the future success of a manufacturing business. When the leadership teams look at investment decisions in terms of solutions rather than just technology, they focus on the speed of solving the problem, which benefits them in the long term.
One thing is for sure; the post-Covid world will be permanently different from the pre-Covid one. For example, face masks may become a permanent fixture, with some people choosing to wear them whenever they are in a public, crowded space. We may be more conscious of socializing in large venues. And people worldwide will keep a stock of toilet paper at all times(!)
From a manufacturing perspective, Industry 4.0 adoption is set to become more widespread and not just the realm of global multinationals. Small manufacturers have seen the benefits of digitalization and how they can future-proof their business against sudden shocks to their system.
As the adage goes, you never know what’s around the corner.