Smart Manufacturing in a Pandemic

COVID-19 put every manufacturer to the test. Massive fluctuations in supply and demand drove the need for immediate adaptation and improvement, increased customer support, and the use of remote or cloud-based solutions.

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Garrett Clemens, MES Consultant, Rockwell Automation
Garrett Clemens, MES Consultant, Rockwell Automation

To say the absolute least, this past year has been brutal. Everything has been impacted. Everyone had to adapt to survive, literally. From an economic perspective, this year required adaptability, agility, reducibility, sustainability, and an extremely focused business strategy just to stay afloat. For those in the manufacturing industries, their workforce, their solutions, their businesses, and their processes were put to the absolute test. Massive fluctuations in supply and demand drove the need for immediate business process analyses with ongoing adaptation and improvement, increased customer support, and  the use of remote or cloud-based solutions. 

These constraints by themselves are challenging, let alone when lumped together. They require extremely robust solutions that provide opportunities for continued analyses around key metrics and business processes, systems that are accessible to their workforce on- and off-site, and artificial intelligence (AI) to offer proactive system maintenance and solution optimization. These types of advancements and opportunities are exactly what smart manufacturing provides. A smart manufacturing solution can be something as small as a piecemeal upgrade or as significant as a new, fully integrated, robust system and solution.   

The degree or significance of these constraints may lessen but they will not go away. The specific constraints the pandemic has generated will not suddenly disappear. These challenges and constraints will remain. Companies’ current solutions may not be sustainable. This pandemic was proof that it is time for companies to invest in themselves, their workforce, their solutions, and in smart manufacturing. 

Smart manufacturing solutions were implemented and used throughout the world this past year due to companies being forced to adapt and survive. Pharmaceutical companies started using smart manufacturing solutions to revamp their vaccine production to meet global demands. Without these smart manufacturing solutions, it would have taken a lot longer to meet the challenges and demands that arose from the pandemic. 

Cloud solutions were implemented for a workforce that no longer went to offices, and smart manufacturing solutions provided an avenue to keep up with demand while simultaneously supporting the workforce as their needs and locations shifted. 

Many companies finally got serious about using AI solutions to analyze massive amounts of data. They realized they had more data than they thought they had, and from that data could learn more about what was really going on and what they needed to do about it. AI solutions were the key to that insight. 

Companies also got serious about new manufacturing approaches. It might have been the limits on the workforce or other constraints, but companies started getting serious about additive manufacturing, cobots, and digital twins. 

Luckily, we are now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Companies are starting to relax, decompress, and celebrate the well-earned victory of continued operation. Some companies had to adapt various areas of their businesses to meet the immense challenges presented during a global pandemic, but now are reverting to their original solution, strategy, or processes. That may be a big mistake. 

This pandemic required everyone to self-assess and adapt to sustain. Companies need to do the same. They need to assess how their solutions adapted (or did not adapt) to the insane constraints and challenges the pandemic provided, and then find where they can improve, either completely or piecemeal. Smart manufacturing solutions such as AI, augmented reality/virtual reality, Industrial Internet of Things, cloud and edge, digital twins and digital threads, smart AI objects, prescriptive analytics, and closed-loop orchestration and optimization are all real, proven solutions which are not only providing significant economic benefits to the companies who are smart enough to use them but are specifically designed to meet the challenges that we are facing as a result of the pandemic.

We may be very close to the end of this pandemic, but by no means should we forget the challenges and constraints we faced. We need to identify and implement more advanced solutions to meet the ever-growing challenges. Going forward, this time should be used to assess our current state, identify where we can improve, and strengthen our resolve. 

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