It is too early to say if the US has moved passed the worst of the pandemic. After all, as medical professionals warn, another surge is a possibility. However, despite uncertainty, a growing number of manufacturers have restarted albeit under a new normal. Of course, to remain stable, it is clear businesses need to reach new levels of agility and flexibility.
After all, there are still factories in highly impacted regions who have yet to restart, and most operating factories continue to function with less staff to comply with social distancing requirements. As such, manufacturers need to quickly adjust operations to accelerate production, while keeping employees safe. Strong partnerships between manufacturers and suppliers will also be critical to plan accordingly around availability of materials and people, explains Keith Higgins, vice president of digital transformation for Rockwell Automation.
“Offshore manufacturing in China and other highly-impacted regions will need to return to the US, including production of antibiotics and high-tech equipment,” says Higgins. “Automation and remote technology (such as augmented reality training) will become critical technologies for manufacturers to implement to ensure social distancing guidelines are being met, but staff are receiving the highest quality training and connecting on-site employees with off-site experts.”
Higgins tells IndustryWeek, automation can help streamline factory operations, allowing workers to shift their focus to higher skilled tasks, while eliminating a crowded factory floor to comply with new social distancing requirements. “By implementing automation, manufacturers can streamline tasks and obtain valuable insights from equipment - including increased demand and the need for equipment maintenance,” he says. “This will help manufacturers identify trends and alter capabilities accordingly. If a manufacturer’s operations are flexible, implementing automation makes factories easier to operate. Human to machine interfaces will help employees adjust operations as needed as they receive instant insight from machines, allowing factories to operate at their highest capabilities.”
Understandably, making investments during uncertainty can be a difficult endeavor. However, as Higgins points out there are various technologies that could prove instrumental for manufacturers going forward:
Augmented reality (AR). AR shows promise as manufactures train workers remotely through video, adapt to new travel restrictions and make pivots in production to address market demands for protective equipment and healthcare tools. AR can also serve as a meaningful tool to reskill employees for new operations and other critical areas such as safety, maintenance and quality assurance.
IoT. Investments in IoT technologies can replace manual equipment monitoring and operational assessments, helping manufacturers adapt to capacity and social distancing requirements. Implementing a smart factory can upgrade programs and systems to maximize production and adjust manufacturing capabilities as needed.
Analytics. Adopting a real-time analytics platform can provide instant insights without the need for manual monitoring, allowing workers to refocus their efforts on higher-level tasks while decreasing the amount of employees needed on the factory floor to check on machines.
Digital thread. The digital thread connects business processes across an organization – from product and process design to operations – all with real-time insights to enable agile decision-making, accelerated innovation, and increased quality and efficiency. Digital thread technology serves as a record of the evolution of an organization's entire operations – physical machines, manufacturing processes, automation code, and maintenance steps – providing visibility into their past, present, and future state. This visibility is foundational to enabling digital transformation and fending off disruption with accelerated innovation, maximized workforce productivity and optimized operations.
Keeping an eye on road
The top misstep organizations can make is lagging behind their competition in their digital transformation efforts, explains Higgins. “Manufacturers need to avoid getting stuck in analysis paralysis, inhibiting their organization's digital transformation efforts. It's never too early to start digital transformation, but organizations should start small and progress quickly to remain competitive and successful,” he says. “Companies that are the furthest along in digital transformation will perform the best as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. These companies will return to the highest business level and have greater competitive separation post-virus due to their more agile manufacturing environments.”