How will COVID-19 impact smart manufacturing?

COVID-19 came at a time of great disruption in manufacturing. Over recent years, mass customisation has become an increasing priority and leading manufacturers are strategising to deal with growing customer demand. Concerns about climate change and associated government regulations is changing operations across the industry, with particular implications for aerospace and automotive products. Needless to say, the global pandemic has added to the challenges facing manufacturers, although it is at this point less clear how COVID-19 will affect these particular disruptions. However, what we are beginning to see is how the coronavirus pandemic will impact smart manufacturing.

At time of writing, Googling the term ‘Industry 4.0’ delivers 526 million returns. From increased automation, through Internet of Things, to AI-enabled technologies, digital transformation is at the centre of many manufacturers’ growth strategy. And there is good reason to believe that COVID-19 is accelerating the adoption of these technologies and digital transformation programs.

According to The Manufacturer’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2020, 86% of UK manufacturers are ready to invest in new digital technologies. An interesting survey of global manufacturers conducted by Boston Consulting Group found that over 80% of employees and managers a) believe that digital transformation will help their organisation recover from the effects of the pandemic and b) are willing to participate in that transformation. These findings suggest that COVID-19 is having a direct impact on manufacturer’s digital transformation strategy and influencing buy-in from key stakeholders.

Where is this accelerated transformation occurring right now? One of the clearest examples of this interaction between COVID-19 and digital transformation is the increase in digitally-enabled remote working. Of course, remote working for machine operators is challenging, but cloud-based software has enabled operators to complete certain tasks from home. With access to centralised data in the cloud, a member of a quality team, for example, can continue programming and analysis from home, while another operator can keep the coordinate measuring machine in action on the shop floor. This is happening across the manufacturing process and helping to establish safe distance working by reducing the number of employees on the factory floor at any one time.

Even before COVID-19, automation was a leading digital transformation initiative and it is likely this will only become more important while safe distance working continues to be a priority. Increasing automation not only enables increased productivity, but reduces the contact between machines/parts and operators, helping to reduce risk of exposure. Furthermore, automation will likely be a key response to the challenges posed by furlough and reorganisation initiatives; a McKinsey survey of manufacturers in Asia found that around a quarter are expediting automation implementation to alleviate staff shortages.

The current global situation has also demonstrated the need for increasing data connectivity. Complete data connectivity goes beyond connecting end-to-end processes within the four walls of a factory, but extends across the enterprise. In the most mature organisations, this will include stakeholders outside the business. As well as resource problems within the organisation, supply chain disruption has been one of the defining challenges over this year. With true connectivity, organisations get complete visibility of staffing and supplier readiness. Furthermore, teams have real-time insights into machine performance and can easily identify bottlenecks or where extra capacity can be allocated. For leaders in digital transformation, optimised processes will be pushed even further with digital twins and AI-enabled predictive capabilities. There are numerous benefits to be gained from a wide range of smart technologies, but it is intelligent use of data that is fundamental to embedding resilience and agility into an organisation’s manufacturing DNA.

COVID-19 is an unprecedented test of how organisations respond to external change. The case for smart manufacturing has been made for a number of years with a view to multiple drivers of change. 2020 has provided a dramatic illustration of its necessity. What the future holds may be unclear, but we know that digital transformation will increase organisational agility and the ability to face uncertainty. In many places, we are already seeing that resilience in action.

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