COVID-19 will change the way that manufacturers design products, source materials, make parts, and analyze operations. For larger manufacturers with greater financial resources, the pandemic will accelerate the implementation of Industry 4.0, technologies that use a cyber-physical interface to improve how humans and machines interact to add business value. For small-to-medium manufacturers with more limited budgets, the pandemic will transform business even without major technology investments.

Are these predictions about the future of manufacturing too bold? After all, industry’s COVID-19 experience is uncommon – the response to a crisis the likes of which the world has not seen since the 1918 Spanish flu. Yet there are strong examples of manufacturers who have pivoted during the pandemic to establish what will become new best practices. This article considers some examples while identifying six things to look for as you improve your own manufacturing capabilities during COVID-19 and beyond.

#1 Design and Manufacturing Flexibility

The news stories are everywhere. The automotive industry has been making ventilators. Distillers are making hand sanitizers. Fabricators are making face shields. Yet N95 masks have remained in short supply because they require specialized materials, equipment, and approvals. During the COVID-19 crisis, manufacturers of all sizes learned how flexible they can be – and what they can and cannot do. Companies that quickly met novel demands learned design and manufacturing lessons they can apply in the future.         

#2 Supply Chain Preparedness

In a recent article for SME, a senior vice president for Siemens described supply chain differences between larger and smaller manufacturers during COVID-19. Larger companies benefitted from supply chains with greater geographic diversification and implemented existing disaster plans. Smaller companies lacked ready-to-implement responses and struggled with abrupt supply chains disruptions. These lessons will not be lost on businesses of all sizes as they restart manufacturing or resume operations.

#3 Process Reorganization

Worker protection during the pandemic requires more than just deep cleaning and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks and face shields. Manufacturers are reorganizing processes, such as the movement of materials, to support worker safety initiatives. For example, Boeing is using visual controls such as floor markings and signage to maintain physical distance between employees. Practices like this also help to reduce wasted movement for a cost-saving benefit.

#4 Automation Implementation 

Manufacturing’s interest in industrial automation preceded COVID-19 but is exploding because of the pandemic. As ThomasNet reported on May 4th, sourcing inquiries for automation equipment have increased 147% year-over-year and is up 20% compared to last quarter averages. By automating repetitive tasks, companies can achieve greater efficiencies, improve quality and consistency, and eliminate the need for workers to stand shoulder-to-shoulder on an assembly line or close together in a work cell.

#5 Digital Transformation

Manufacturers will also use the COVID-19 experience to drive their digital transformation. Already during the pandemic, employees who are working remotely are using video conferencing to communicate with co-workers and customers. Managers in their home offices want the ability to check the status of a job, the performance of equipment, or the productivity of a shift. Building a complete digital manufacturing infrastructure will not happen overnight, but the pandemic will shape growing demand for it.

#6 The Search for Value

Finally, manufacturing’s response to COVID-19 will encourage companies to find greater value wherever they can. New business models that include technology partnerships will develop. Challenges like supply chain constraints, traceability, and shop floor control will become a priority. Manufacturing talent was hard enough to find before the pandemic but will become a differentiator as companies seek a competitive advantage and demonstrate their readiness to face the future of manufacturing.

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