Looking Beyond COVID-19

May 16, 2020
Though it may seem like a good idea to hold back on transformation projects during the COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew Hughes shows how that may come at the risk of falling behind those who are continuing down this track.

As I sit here locked down in the Belgian countryside, when compared to the global suffering we are currently experiencing, the world of automation and the growth we were seeing in digital manufacturing seems rather unimportant.

However, now is absolutely not the time to give up. Country by country, everyone is looking at the exponential growth in the number of new and confirmed cases of COVID-19. However, in places like China and South Korea, we have started to see the first successful shifts below exponential growth, and that is an encouraging sign for all those countries that are making a maximum effort to reduce new cases.

One of the efforts being made is reducing the number of employees working together, whether that be working from home or temporarily closing the factory. But two things need to happen:

  • We must continue to do everything we can to get off the exponential growth curve; and
  • We must be ready for change when we do get back to work.

For the rest of the article, we will leave the first of these to the politicians and scientists who are in a position to influence the speed of change—not forgetting, to quote the indomitable Dr. Anthony Fauci, “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.”

Getting ready to achieve again
In time, people will return to work and we need to not only be ready to resume production, but also ready to compete in a changed world. In his latest column for Automation World, my colleague Joe Perino discussed the need to acquire and train operations technology (OT) staff to help manage the changes that are inevitable as manufacturers undertake industrial transformation (IX). This will bring a useful increase in skills, but we should look further to see what we can achieve by thinking big—and somewhat off the wall.

We have little idea when we will get back to some semblance of normal work and manufacturing, but this should not stop us from making plans and encouraging ideas about our future. These suggestions for areas on which the ambitious could be working, and others, are directly aimed at being in the lead when this all ends:

  • More flexible manufacturing, allowing more product variation in existing plants;
  • A supply chain that has no critical path built in;
  • Introduction of much more additive manufacturing;
  • Design to manufacturing integration for faster new product information;
  • Analytics across the enterprise to drive performance;
  • Introduction of completely new technologies; and
  • Application of technologies that are under used in the factory, such as automated guided vehicles, augmented reality, and collaborative robots. 

At LNS Research, we recently ran a survey to determine manufacturing enterprise’s initial reactions to the Coronavirus, and the final question was, “How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted existing technology/transformation plan and projects?”

Not surprisingly, a large minority have put these on hold. The encouraging sign is that a few have sped up programs, and speeding up environment, health, and safety seems a likely behavior and to be encouraged. However, a near 20% speeding up of transformation programs is exciting for some but worrying for those who are not acting. More so than before, those who put IX on hold are falling further behind the IX leaders.

It is time to deploy smart people in roles that will make a long-term difference to your company. Of course, planning the restart of production will be the most urgent task when restrictions are lifted. But today we have an opportunity to change the way we manage our companies and, particularly, build in new levels of flexibility and agility in everything we do.

HR/OT convergence: Getting the most from our most valuable asset
There has been a concentration on the information technology and OT convergence, but perhaps we should consider a bit of human resources (HR) and OT collaboration. We always say people are the most important asset in our companies, but now is the time to prove it.

One aspect of people often overlooked inside the factory is talent management. Many of our factory employees stay in one job for a long time and become experts in their field, but are rarely consulted about anything else. Indeed, we probably have little idea of our coworkers’ skills beyond the narrow definition of today’s job. We suggest that you involve HR and spend some of the COVID-19 downtime doing a deep investigation into everyone’s skills. Some might speak a language that would be useful with overseas customers, others might be wizards in a specific computer language, or one might have skills in a hobby like graphic design or photography that is, at least, somewhat useful or interesting. We can also bring skills from previous jobs or roles to the attention of HR and management.

This process has two main purposes: 1) To find useful skills and to demonstrate to our concerned staff that we care more about them than about their job; and 2) Employees that are well-treated, and demonstrably so, will become happier, more agile, and more flexible. That second point may be one of the most important lessons we learn from this terrible pandemic—just what we need to reform after COVID-19.

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