The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the overall performance of manufacturing factories, and smart manufacturing technology has reduced the devastating effects of COVID-19 by providing solutions to slump demand, supplies fluctuation, depressed employee performance and operation. In this article, I discuss the role of smart manufacturing technologies in supporting factory survival and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The impact of manufacturing technology on business model
The Fourth Industrial Revolution began in the year 2000 and continues until now, is characterized by the emergence of smart industrial technologies such as 3D printing, robotics, remote sensing tools, the Internet of Things IoT, machine learning, virtual and augmented reality and artificial intelligence. These technologies have contributed to improving the quality of industrial products, enabling full automation and influencing demand and supply factors. These applications also produce smarter products that are connected, customized, cheaper, multi-purpose, and unique value propositions. Besides, industrial technologies enable automation, that increases production capacities and productivity, enhances operation efficiency, reduces product costs, improves product quality and better satisfies customers. Moreover, manufacturing technologies guide factories to make, deliver and capture values, as through creating unique solution to challenges and producing products that fit the market and customer needs. For example, 3-D printing can produce tinny parts that are difficult to be made by ordinary factories, and advanced system for data analysis can predict customer needs, and robotics can replace employees in production floor.
Manufacturers during the COVID-19
The COVID-19 has revived some manufacturing activities, such as factories producing hand cleansers, sterilization, respirators, personal protective items, sanitary paper products and food products, but this pandemic also badly affected other industrial activities and caused a demand contraction, a fluctuation in the supply of raw materials and interruption of staff performance and operation. Small factories, in particular, have suffered from additional problems that added to their suffering, such as the difficulty in obtaining sufficient funds and the acquisition of manufacturing technologies.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, factories were aiming to focus on competitive advantages, cost reduction, productivity increase, sustainability and innovation. Today, under this COVID-19, the factories’ priorities have changed to be first survival, recovery and then sustainability. However, the current situation of factories shows that most factories are unready to achieve these goals considering the sudden COVID-19 pandemic, as they have been unable to either change business plans, or operating systems, or work culture, or positive thinking and manufacturing flexibility, leaving those factories in an inferior situation. This is evidenced by a survey conducted by Pinsent Masons in June 2020 of 100 factories in Germany and 100 university students, that showed only 42% of factories ready in terms of smart manufacturing technology to face out the COVID-19. Another survey conducted by the Harvard Business Reviews has revealed that only 43% of factories run an integrated digital system for all their operations, and it is expected that the number of these factories will increase to reach 63% in 2022.
Smart manufacturing technology is the savior
The COVID-19 effect on factories resulted in a demand decline, a fluctuation in the supply of raw materials, a disturbance in employee and operating performances and an incline in financial performance. The Harvard Business Reviews survey has shown that factories have placed 51% importance for collaborating with supply chains, 44% importance for improving demand, and 33% importance for information analysis. Also, The Manufacture has shown the interest of individuals and institutions in the importance of digital learning and communication technologies during this pandemic, as the number of researchers via Google, for example, about video conferencing increased by 190% in March compared to past periods.
Manufacturing technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, Internet of Things IoT, remote sensing tools and information technologies contribute to resolving the demand slump, as these technologies provide superior capabilities to factories to search the market, understand consumers and enable manufacturing flexibility. For example, some dairy factories in the United Kingdom have switched from supplying their products to restaurants and hotels that have closed because of the COVID-19, to direct supply to individuals and households. To deal with supply fluctuation of raw materials, for example, 3D printing techniques have contributed to the printing of some precision spare parts, manufacturing face masks, along with encouraging local alliances to manufacture import substituted materials. Also, universities and laboratories have joined efforts to manufacture respirators and personal protective equipment, and some British farmers have collaboratively built a website to sell their products on it instead of the weekly open market before the pandemic. Manufacturing technology has also helped employee safety, improve performance and enable remote work by using robotics, the Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, video call technologies and distance learning. These technologies also contributed to integrating human resources with the operating systems through smart manufacturing technologies, using remote sensing tools, information analysis systems, machine learning, and the Internet of Things. Harvard Business Reviews also revealed the priorities of factories in addressing the effects of the COVID-19, as factories prioritizing supply chains at 55%, product development at 48%, manufacturing process at 43%, strategic thinking at 41% and 37% of financing. Besides, these technologies enable manufacturing flexibility, such as shifting factories to produce medical protective equipment, and the Harvard Business Reviews have shown that 24% of factories use flexible manufacturing systems like the use of robots and self-driving mechanisms. And enabling automation, i.e. using robots, and information and decision-making systems, i.e. using remote sensing tools, the Internet of things and machine learning. And finally using digital technologies, i.e. connected computer systems, and remote sensing tools to integrate manufacturing technologies with supply chain.
Munther Al Dawood- Enterprise Expert
Grow Enterprise www.growenterprise.co.uk