Like any crisis, the height of the COVID-19 pandemic taught everyone that nothing and no one is ever prepared for a global pandemic – including the manufacturing sector.
A key aspect that shielded various industries from total economic devastation has been their early adoption of digital technology, particularly in terms of various operational processes. These include supply chain management, production, shipping and distribution.
Others, of course, have not been so fortunate, with company and facility closures reported from around the world.
As a consequence, a major resolution that stands out in the manufacturing industry (and in most businesses) is the need to ramp up the adoption of digital technologies.
Benefits of Digital Technology in Manufacturing
Crises like COVID-19 have major transformative impacts, not the least of which continue to be felt in manufacturing. Now, more than ever, the following benefits of digital technology in manufacturing continue to be highlighted.
1. It enhances operational efficiency.
Digital manufacturing provides businesses with an integrated approach to the process of producing products. It helps to address operational inefficiencies and leads to more robust supply chain planning, stock management and cost control. It allows for the application of the industrial internet of things (IIOT) and helps manufacturers adhere to compliance requirements.
2. It helps manufacturers innovate.
Through the adoption of state-of-the-art technology, such as human-robot collaboration (HRC), predictive analytics, machine learning and 3D modelling, manufacturers can eliminate silos in product planning and development. They can deploy automated, cloud-based solutions that can help improve communication and data access, and simplify performance monitoring.
Such innovations ultimately lead to better product quality, customer satisfaction and waste reduction.
3. It empowers the new generation of tech-savvy workers.
There’s a new generation of tech-savvy workers that can fill digital manufacturing jobs. These workers are aware of the benefits of digital innovation and HRC as in the case of cobots and drone technology increasingly being used in manufacturing and warehousing.
Businesses can also tap into their existing workforce and equip them with the training and tools necessary to fulfil their jobs whilst also providing them with upskilling opportunities.
4. It helps to improve workplace safety and reduce costs.
Digital manufacturing technology reduces or eliminates worker load involving difficult, monotonous or high-risk tasks, thereby helping improve workplace safety. This, in turn, helps to reduce health and safety risks, as well as associated costs. Moreover, higher operational efficiency helps manufacturers avoid excessive inventory, which reduces waste and losses.
Manufacturer Reactions to COVID-19
After everyone was done scrambling for safety and checking their supplies during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people’s focus turned to work. How was business to go on? Was carrying on as usual even a remote possibility?
In the realm of manufacturing, the primary question was how industries could address the challenges of supply and demand amidst such a major disruption. Smart factory initiatives helped to meet such concerns as digital technology enables manufacturers to better predict demand through data analytics. Thus, there came an overwhelming resolution to increase digital technology investments.
Another major challenge manufacturers faced was disruptions in the supply chain, especially since most raw materials and even finished goods come from China – from which the new coronavirus emerged. Hence, manufacturers had to rethink their supply chain strategies. They also had to focus on near-shore manufacturing or shift to a regional supply chain model.
Government-mandated lockdowns, community quarantines and physical distancing policies also figure greatly in the next steps of the manufacturing sector. There is an increasing urgency to intensify automation, no-touch operations and remote system management – all of which require digital manufacturing technology.
5 Tips for Manufacturers Post-COVID
The continuing effects of COVID-19 have underscored the value of agility and lean manufacturing process, as well as that of digital manufacturing technology.
Therefore, industries looking to grow in the near and distant future would do well to mull over the following tips:
- Consider the need for flexible supply chain systems and workforces.
Disruptions in the supply chain and workforce, as well as liquidity problems, can render a business immobile. Therefore, it falls on manufacturers and businesses to always have alternative sources of supply and financing to ensure business continuity. Tapping into sources closer to home is one strategy worth adopting. Not only does it reduce supply chain challenges that arise with global pandemics, but it is also a more sustainable approach to supply chain management.
Additionally, manufacturers should invest in preparing their human resources to achieve greater flexibility and to develop remote team operational efficiency.
- Utilise data resources and data-driven insights to better inform business decisions.
The value of data-driven insights is no longer lost on a lot of industries. What the pandemic has shown everyone is that data should drive key decisions to prevent costly mistakes, especially in crisis situations. Manufacturers should, therefore, invest in cloud computing, data collection and analytics that they can use to gain valuable insights regarding their industry, business and customers.
- Adopt cobots to improve automation and free workers to perform high-level tasks.
Collaborative robots or cobots are nothing new to manufacturing. They have been used for years and years to increase production efficiency and accuracy. By adopting or expanding the use of cobots, manufacturers can increase automation and reduce the stress of monotony on a human workforce.
This helps to improve not only workforce morale but also productivity as employees can be trained to perform more meaningful, complex, high-level tasks.
- Use digital twins for asset monitoring, care and maintenance.
Virtual representations of equipment or so-called ‘digital twins’ are useful for equipment monitoring, extending the lifespan of your machines and preventing total equipment failure. By keeping a close watch of critical system indicators, such as temperature, vibration and wear, it becomes easier to anticipate problems, fix or replace faulty equipment and reduce or eliminate downtime.
- Invest in cybersecurity.
As manufacturers continue to adopt digital manufacturing technologies, more processes continue to be digitised, thereby increasing the importance of data as a fundamental asset in driving operations. This means the protection of valuable data should be at the core of every business, not just in manufacturing.
With cybercriminals becoming more determined to exploit the relationship between digital systems and the internet, cybercrimes have also become increasingly more sophisticated and costly at the same time.
In fact, there have been noticeably higher rates in cyberattacks in 2020 as more businesses have had to adopt remote working or work-from-home (WFH) policies in adherence to community quarantines and physical distancing guidelines.
Like other big industries, manufacturers have a lot at stake in cases of cybersecurity breaches. These include their customer and vendor database, sales data and other critical data assets.
Therefore, cybersecurity is no longer an add-on or afterthought of organisational strategy. It’s a core business element that manufacturers need to invest in as they plan and strategise year after year.
Manufacturing Today and Beyond
Martin Thomas, European Marketing Manager at Radwell said “Crises, whatever their scale, serve to expose inadequacies and inefficiencies in existing systems.
The global pandemic has revealed weaknesses in various human systems of all sizes.
In manufacturing, digital technology has proven to be the saving grace that has enabled the most resilient industries to survive. In fact, new industries also cropped up, with some even growing and thriving in what is generally considered an adverse atmosphere.
Therefore, if manufacturers intend to not only weather this storm but also achieve growth in the long term, they need to increase their investment in manufacturing technology, including cybersecurity. Additionally, bringing their operations and suppliers closer to home is not only more efficient but also sustainable. They also need to invest in employee training to ensure they have an agile, flexible workforce that can remain productive whatever crises may come.
By keeping this information and the tips shared here in mind, manufacturers can take decisive steps to protect their business from similar crises.”