Jim Connett, on July 22, 2021, 12:00 PM
Post-Pandemic: Emerging Trends in Manufacturing
In March 2021, the world commemorated the first anniversary of the COVID pandemic, a time when the global brakes of the economy, manufacturing, and travel were pressed hard to slow the spread of a virus for which there was no antidote. Now, one year later, we find ourselves navigating the waves of variant strains, getting in line for the now-available vaccine, and looking forward to the day when we return to some sense of normalcy.
Similar to how our lives have rapidly changed, the manufacturing landscape is changing before our very eyes due in large part to the global pandemic. In response, companies are moving certain “wish list” items off of the long-term capital expenditure, “rainy day” list, and onto a mission-critical list of action items in the pursuit of profitability amidst the changing landscape of manufacturing.
Below are four emerging trends that may be good to consider as you navigate your current heading in these choppy waters churned by a world adapting to this new normal.
The domestication of manufacturing
Thomas Friedman, in his book “The World Is Flat,” describes the sequence of events by a laptop company when a customer places an order. He describes the internal processes, traces the route of this laptop through different countries for parts and assembly, describes the supply-chain dependencies spanning the globe, and the delivery systems required to complete the order and get the laptop into the hands of the customer. His thesis embraced a manufacturing world without borders and with a level and equitable playing field. The longevity of his thesis also implicitly depended on a strong supply chain. The pandemic – as we have seen – has disrupted the supply chain; it will take some time for it to simultaneously settle and readjust to the new demands of this world. In addition to the economic and supply chain challenges, just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing is now more challenging because each “borderless” country is addressing the pandemic in its own way, impacting its ability to produce, import, and export. Some manufacturers and producers are sourcing raw materials, supplies, and parts from regional – or even local – sources where the supply chain is smaller…or at least closer to a company’s home base.
The dependency of data infrastructure and digitization
Whereas a robust IT infrastructure was viewed as a commodity, digitization has increasingly become a requirement and an asset. From secure and fast VPN solutions for remote workers to increased use of cloud infrastructure in support of a dispersed workforce, data digitization is the new norm. The success of a distributed workforce model depends largely on a fast, reliable, dependable information technology infrastructure.
The reliance on distributed planning tools
ERP, CRM, video conferencing, and other collaboration applications have become the new “boardroom table” around which we sit each day, planning our workdays with our colleagues, checking on the status of a project, and just striving to maintain the interpersonal and friendly relationships with colleagues – some you may have never seen in person yet (if they were hired in 2020!). In prior days, everyone had their way of keeping notes, recording minutes, tracking meetings, etc. Today, out of necessity, we see an increased reliance on centralized planning and communication platforms. In prior days, we may have called or emailed, or even personally visited the desk of a colleague. Today, we depend on collaboration software and shared planning applications to keep everyone in sync and moving in the same direction.
The need for automation
The pandemic has served to expose those areas in manufacturing best suited for automated solutions. We see increasing efforts by many of our partners to fully utilize their ERP, MES, and equipment integration (EI) applications to automate repetitive tasks to free up valuable human resources for other, more complex activities. “Lights out” manufacturing is seen as the holy grail of manufacturing, and many are considering this possibility in their long-term planning – even with the more realistic view that only some tasks and activities will be automated.
In many ways, these four trends are quickly becoming requirements in the pursuit of sustainability amidst the changing landscape of manufacturing. Success in these types of initiatives is most often found when the effort is focused on high-value processes, with a coherent strategy. Determining how/if/when to pursue these initiatives can be expedited significantly with the assistance of manufacturing automation experts. Don’t delay the process to assess and incrementally address the inefficiencies in your production environment.