Manufacturing operations globally are seeing disruption they have never experienced before as a result of the COVID-19 emergency. The focus in the early weeks of the crisis was about understanding and adapting to the dramatically changed situation while those manufacturing essential products like food, medicines, PPE, and medical devices dealt with the challenge of meeting demand.
Thoughts are now turning to the future for manufacturers in all industries as plans are being drafted for the slow march towards normality, albeit a normality that is likely to be different to the normal we were familiar with before.
What role will Industry 4.0 have in the post-COVID-19 world? Has the experience of the medical crisis and the resulting lockdown changed priorities in relation to Smart Factory technologies, digital transformation, and digitalisation? What are the solutions that will be important elements of the new paradigm for the manufacturing industry?
The Impact of COVID-19 on the Manufacturing Industry
How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted the manufacturing industry? Of course, there is no single answer to that question as the position varies from industry to industry and company to company.
Some have stopped production completely while others have seen massive increases in demand. There are others too who are still operating but at a reduced level while there are some that are operating but are producing completely different products than they were before the COVID-19 crisis began.
The only thing we can say with certainty, however, is that almost every manufacturing operation in every industry has been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis in some way.
This applies even in industries like pharmaceuticals and medical devices. While manufacturers in these industries mostly (although not always) fall into the category of businesses that have seen increased demand during the COVID-19 crises, they still face significant disruption.
In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, supply chains faced disruption as many of the active ingredients in pharmaceutical products come from China, the country first hit by COVID-19 and where the first lockdown and quarantine rules came into force.
Evaluating and Analysing the Impact
In the lockdown phase of the crisis, particularly in the early stages, our own health, as well as the health and wellbeing of our family, friends, and colleagues, were the most important considerations.
This continues, plus there is also a focus on ensuring the health system doesn’t become overwhelmed while we all do what we can, individually and as a wider society, to slow the spread of the virus.
As the situation unfolds, however, the economic, business, and job security impact of the crisis is coming into increasing focus as businesses plan for the next stage, i.e. when lockdown measures begin to be lifted in the coming months.
Whatever the impact of the crisis on manufacturing businesses, the situation presents a unique opportunity to evaluate and learn lessons:
- What weaknesses can be identified?
- Has the risk matrix changed?
- Was the decision-making process efficient during the most frantic stages of the crisis and was there enough information to make good decisions?
- Was the information accurate?
Even in manufacturing businesses that have seen consistent or even increasing demand, there are still important lessons to be learned, including those above.
Learning these lessons is crucial for business resilience and continuity planning, but for the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, it is also about public health, patient outcomes, and saving lives.
Important Lessons Learned
What are some of the lessons we have learned in the manufacturing industry during the COVID-19 crisis? Accepting the fact there are challenges and limitations when making generalisations, there is an important lesson that most manufacturers can learn.
That lesson is that once system architectures and processes were tested beyond what we used to regard as a normal operating range, they failed.
There will be exceptions and there will be success stories, but most companies struggled with a new reality that they had never planned for or anticipated. For example:
- How do you maintain capacity and quality standards while ensuring sufficient social distancing for members of staff?
- How do you respond quickly to the rapidly changing levels in demand that were experienced by many manufacturers, particularly given the lack of real-time data providing information on things like raw material stock levels, manufacturing capacity, and distribution chain efficiency?
- How can you mitigate supply chain and distribution chain unpredictability?
This brings us to another lesson learned as a result of the COVID-19 crisis – the fact that manufacturing really is a real-time process. Delays, however small and wherever they occur, can have a significant impact, i.e. assessing levels of demand, raw material availability, staffing availability, scalability, the effectiveness of the distribution chain, factory floor processes, etc.
The Role Industry 4.0 Can Play in the Post COVID-19 World
Industry 4.0 was important before the crisis, not least because of the efficiency, competitiveness, and productivity benefits it offered. In summary, the technologies and concepts that fall under the Industry 4.0 umbrella set out a blueprint for the Smart Factory of the future.
This will undoubtedly change given our individual and collective experience of Q1 and Q2 2020.
Industry 4.0 technologies and solutions, however, remain important and will play a key role in shaping the manufacturing sector in the months and years to come.
Here are some of the ways Industry 4.0 solutions will improve manufacturing operations and businesses post COVID-19:
- Providing real-time visibility of manufacturing operations across all aspects of the business, breaking down data silos and ensuring real-time information is available to decision-makers
- Improving OEE, an objective which is more important now than ever before
- Increasing use of automation, robots, cobots, and autonomous vehicles for efficiency and cost-saving purposes as well as to facilitate social distancing
- Increasing use of machine learning and artificial intelligence to assess, plan, and make decisions on everything from manufacturing output capacity to equipment maintenance schedules
- 3D printing of components and parts as a backup to, or in place of, third-party suppliers
- Augmented and virtual reality for training, technical support, and other tasks which are otherwise difficult in an era of social distancing
Adapting to the New Normal
Like all sectors, the manufacturing sector will go through a period of change in the post-COVID-19 world. Industry 4.0 technologies and solutions will help manufacturing companies protect their staff and ensure output capacity while also helping them adapt to what will become the new normal.