The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for industries across the board, and manufacturing is no different.
With digitalisation on everybody’s lips, the question is, how can manufacturers best leverage technology, automation and IoT to rebound from the COVID-19 crisis as smoothly and as quickly as possible?
Challenges to the manufacturing sector
One of the biggest challenges affecting the manufacturing industry, like many others, is the restrictions placed on workplace access.
Employees are being encouraged to work offsite as much as possible due to the pandemic, resulting in lean engineering and service teams on the factory floor, enterprise risk and limited availability of assets and operations.
Firstly, how can companies help to ensure an efficient workforce and operations while protecting employees’ health and safety and carry out training during these challenging times?
Secondly, how do companies keep their business running efficiently and profitably, maintaining business continuity in the mid to long term in the face of logistics challenges? Thirdly, how can companies reduce downtime of assets and the need for maintenance while continuing to operate with lean on-site staff?
To elevate the above challenges, there are three guiding principles that manufacturers should follow to keep their workforce safe while preparing for ongoing uncertainty and long-lasting changes to the work environment.
- Protect the workforce. Companies should standardise operating procedures and tools that keep staff safe, such as implementing regimented social distancing and protective garments on the factory floor, and building workforce confidence through effective, two-way communication that responds to employees’ concerns.
- Manage risks to help to ensure business continuity. Companies need to anticipate and be ready to respond to potential changes with speed and agility, as exemplified in the rapid spike in demand for PPEs and masks at the height of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year.
Coupled with export limitations from supplier countries, manufacturers had to quickly transition away from their regular portfolio and pivot into PPE manufacturing. A flexible factory floor and scenario planning well ahead of the fluctuations will enable manufacturers to keep operations running smoothly despite unforeseeable volatility.
- Drive productivity at a distance, even when employees are unable to be physically present. Companies should continue to effectively manage performance at their facilities through remote monitoring and support while physical distancing and remote working policies remain in place.
The above can be achieved through digital transformation, and digitally transformed businesses are best positioned to be agile, enabling manufacturers to respond and adapt quickly to any challenges the business might face.
Amongst our customer base, we are already gathering evidence that those who had begun their digital transformation journey pre-pandemic (pre-March 2020) were better prepared to tackle the above challenges.
Adopting and optimising the use of IOT, AI and AR
The majority of manufacturers are familiar with the Internet of Things (IOT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), key features of digital transformation and Industry 4.0.
IoT has many different applications for manufacturers, such as facilitating production flow and monitoring product development cycles, as well as in the management of warehouses and inventories through networked sensors and intelligent devices.
IoT devices also collect data to drive artificial intelligence and predictive analytics and maintenance.
AI, also known as ‘machine intelligence’, can be used in the manufacturing industry to oversee operations and alert teams to production anomalies. Employees can investigate or intervene as necessary, observe product quality and specify issue causes, and flag equipment issues before unplanned downtime or catastrophic failure.
AI also allows a company to leverage the data they are generating to increase capacity, reduce energy consumption and improve the quality of their output.
On top of IoT and AI, Augmented Reality (AR) is another tool that manufacturers can use to unlock opportunities across the value chain and build out resilient operations.
In manufacturing, AR can be used to mock-up a finished product, identify unsafe working conditions and predict equipment and hardware servicing needs.
These technologies often work in tandem, and by enabling IoT, AI and AR across various functions on the shop floor, companies can leverage these digital enhancements to address and overcome the challenges presented by the pandemic.
For example, on the servicing and engineering front, virtual team collaboration is made possible through AR and VR. AR and IoT enable remote servicing and customer self-service, reducing the need for the costly dispatching of technicians or truck rolls.
The technology also enables greater technician productivity as well as breakthrough digital product experiences.
Not only are off-site employees able to access machines or systems remotely, but AR can be used to upskill other employees on how to use these systems, enabling collaboration to continue efficiently even if engineering teams are forced to work remotely.
To support sales and product marketing efforts, product lifecycle management (PLM) and AR can be used to create 3D holograms for configured product demonstrations, and IoT and AR can be used to present differentiated product or brand experiences.
This allows sales and marketing teams to continue to build a pipeline of leads, presenting their company’s capabilities, products and services effectively even when physical meetings are kept to a minimum.
To maximise the benefits reaped from IoT, AI and AR, these technologies need to be embedded within an existing infrastructure that is secure and has both IT and OT systems in place. In turn, manufacturers also need to be able to protect and maintain this infrastructure.
This can be achieved through the application of managed security services like threat detection, response and recovery, infrastructure administration and monitoring, even 24/7 remote support.
Device integration to the cloud will also allow for round-the-clock remote monitoring of device health and collection of performance data, enabling manufacturers to make data-guided adjustments to optimise systems performance and undertake predictive maintenance of their assets, avoiding costly downtime.
Flexible and agile manufacturing enabled by digital transformation is essential to maintaining business continuity, especially against the backdrop of an unpredictable and rapidly changing environment.
With the COVID-19 pandemic likely to restrict the movement of employees for some time to come, manufacturers should be prepared for their workforce to be separated from the factory floor for the foreseeable future.
Manufacturers should act now, investing in digital transformation capabilities which will equip their employees with remote tools to maintain efficient processes, maximising throughput, optimising asset utilisation and decreasing expenses. All while ensuring business continuity and protecting the health and safety of employees well into the post-pandemic future.