Manufacturers Mobilizing on Technology to Support Post-Pandemic Pivots

The post-pandemic pivot is upon us, and digital transformation in manufacturing is continuing at warp speed. The COVID-19 pandemic underscored remote system weaknesses and over-reliance on line-of-sight and onsite verbal communications in the manufacturing arena.

Only a few months into the pandemic, almost 77% of manufacturers said that they were reevaluating what work could be done remotely where possible, according to a Q2 2020 survey from the National Association of Manufacturers. Organizations are responding with a newfound emphasis on technology to support the remote workforce and digital workflows for business continuity and “new normal,” post-COVID socially distanced operations.

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Many companies stayed the course in updating underperforming or outdated legacy software in 2020, as they realized their shortcomings in being able navigate COVID-related disruption. Let’s look at key technologies that manufacturers are embracing moving forward to address new needs and requirements:

Industry 4.0 enables transformational leaps in productivity, cost reductions and operational visibility. IoT, a key component of Industry 4.0, has been trending for the past few years, and the rollout of 5G is helping fuel this. But IoT is also finding its stride in supporting mitigation of the impact of COVID and its social distancing and capacity constraints.

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Industrial distribution firm Jergens Industrial Supply offers IoT-enabled frictionless inventory management solutions for manufacturers. Autocrib tool vending machines and WiFi-enabled IoT buttons dispense tools workers need quickly and easily. Expect to see more practical IoT enabled solutions such as this that eliminate congestion and bottlenecks on the shop floor.

We have seen tremendous growth in IoT to support front-line worker health/safety and risk management. At Ford, watch-like RFID wearables vibrate when employees come within six feet of each other to ensure worker compliance with social distancing protocols. Another offering called Safe Spacer can be worn on a wrist, belt or lanyard – lights, sound and vibration occur when an employee comes within six feet of another employee, and the solution also logs contacts to support contract tracing.

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As product lifecycles continue to become compressed, 3D printing supports getting new products to market faster. Rapid prototyping minimizes the time, effort and investment to develop working prototypes.

Fitness equipment manufacturer Rogue Fitness pivoted rapidly to developing 3D printable, reusable face shields early at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Working with a local hospital, it designed and printed an approved prototype in two days, and immediately started 24/7 production using 3D printers. The initial face shield design was created, manufactured and shared with the hospital team within a 24-hour timeframe.

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3D printing is ideal for addressing crises such as this because it enables direct CAD-to-print production of parts without the time spent creating tooling. Best of all, 3D printing is more cost effective and approachable even for small manufacturers, as a 3D printer now costs as little as $2,000 to $3,000.

COVID capacity constraints and social distancing requirements are driving the need for even more lights-out manufacturing adoption. This concept enables production with minimal or zero human intervention by relying on automation and increased visibility of operations at critical portions of the manufacturing process.

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Manufacturers that had enabled lights-out manufacturing, where machines run unattended and/or remotely, shined during the shutdown as five-star examples of business continuity.

To cope with rising labor costs in China, where the bulk of its manufacturing operations takes place, Foxconn has made some sweeping changes. A prime example is Foxconn’s dark factory in Shenzhen’s Longhua District. Visitors to the factory must use flashlights, as the only light source comes from the small green lights on machinery indicating that the equipment is functioning normally.

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As we work with manufacturers and distributors to map out their future state, going “paperless” is a consistent theme.

The paperless factory has been talked about for the past 20 years, but COVID is shaping up to be the final push to get manufacturers to finally do away with paper as virus-transmission risk-reduction becomes a new and important reason to digitize paper forms. As well, paper forms are no longer viable, because face-to-face interaction and joint workspaces are now significantly limited.

A digital twin is a virtual replica of a facility/plant floor. Digital twins are now being used to manage the performance, effectiveness and quality of a manufacturer’s fixed assets such as manufacturing machines, lines and plants.

Digital twins are ideal for the COVID era, as manufacturers can configure plant floor layouts and new equipment without having to have people physically on site at the actual factory.

Used to support the entire design-execute-change-decommission lifecycle in real-time, digital twins are playing a vital role in facility redesign to meet post-pandemic needs and requirements.

At Siemens, a digital twin also enables customers to participate in virtual plant tours. By virtually walking through the factory floor, Siemens can virtually showcase its manufacturing capacity and the high quality of its production processes.

The market for AI in manufacturing is projected to reach $16 billion by 2025, and a McKinsey report says production floors experience the highest cost reduction from AI adoption than any other business unit.

While AI and predictive analytics were trending prior to COVID, they now play a vital role in informing processes to make manufacturing more precise, eliminate waste and forge competitive advantage. Here are three specific use cases that are trending:

  • Predictive maintenance is one of the biggest opportunities for manufacturers in the COVID era, due to the potential savings in downtime and social distancing constraints for personnel on the shop floor. A Deloitte study found that poor maintenance can decrease production by 5 to 20%. Predictive maintenance collects, analyzes and utilizes data from various manufacturing sources such as machines, sensors, switches, etc. It applies intelligent algorithms to the data to anticipate equipment failure before it happens – going beyond monitoring the output of a machine to take action from real-time insights.
  • Forecasting and planning is a constant source of frustration, especially given shifting supply and demand scenarios brought on by the pandemic. Harvesting big data from outside the four walls of the company to supplement manufacturing data from the ERP system augments and enriches data for better-informed forecasting models. For example, a medical device client and manufacturer of breast pumps is pulling in birth trend data to help better inform its operations.
  • AI-enabled chat bots enable customer communication that is essential to maintain important relationships. But technology that can scale these efforts while detecting common issues and trends can help manufacturers with continuous improvement. AI-enabled chat bots automate routine support queries, service tickets and customer issues, with a seamless chatbot-to-human handover as needed. NHK Spring, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of springs, realized that large numbers of service tickets were being produced for repetitive or redundant issues, and that a chatbot could be used to recognize and respond automatically to these common scenarios, freeing IT personnel to focus on other value-added projects. The chatbot provides instant or automatic incident solution proposals based on initial information provided by users.

One year after the COVID-19 outbreak, manufacturers are bullish on digital transformation because, quite simply, they have no other choice. However, this “forced march” can and will have bona fide benefits well beyond the pandemic.

As manufacturers embrace new technology and new approaches to function in the “new normal,” they are finding new operational efficiencies to power the next wave of competitive advantage.

This article was written by Dave Lechleitner, a senior consultant with AEM member company Ultra Consultants. It originally appeared on the AEM website.