What Challenges Do Manufacturers Face in a Post-pandemic Industry?
COVID-19 exposed several weaknesses in the supply chain and manufacturing. Will those problems persist?
While COVID-19 may have exposed weaknesses in supply chains, it also highlighted the importance of connected technology and the value of automation. These are not new trends. Many companies have steadily increased connected technology, remote monitoring, and the importance of a robust, dependable supply chain.
The biggest challenges happened to companies operating too lean, had too much incumbent inertia, or just were not paying attention to what solutions were in the market. The following will look back and show that many manufacturing challenges highlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic may be more chronic than acute.
Pre-Pandemic Manufacturing Disruption
To save and increase production, many companies adopted connected and automated equipment. Over the last decade, the cost to connect machines became more cost-effective and easier to integrate. Much of the demand to increase speed and production comes from internet businesses making fast delivery a standard.
Fig. 1 Robots on a manufacturing facility floor. Image used courtesy of Universal Robots
As lines moved faster, materials and supply chains had to keep up. Some companies found extra space and time savings by shrinking inventories. This strategy makes sense since off-the-shelf parts and materials could be delivered in hours or days.
60% Supplier Accuracy
Lean inventories and faster production continue to drive a demand for even faster logistics. This trend changes a fast supply chain from a convenience to a necessary standard. For some industries, the ability to receive parts within tight deadlines created quality problems.
Before the pandemic, Protolabs published an article Manufacturing Tool Kit for the Aerospace and Defense Industry, that states, "A major challenge in the aerospace and defense industry are on-time delivery and quality. Industry sources say around 80% of orders generally show up on time. Yet, when those orders do show up on time, about 25% of parts do not meet the required quality."
While the root cause of the delayed or poor quality was not mentioned in the article, some common causes are companies with a limited or non-diverse supply chain. In some cases, a company might be located in a logistically difficult area.
Even though we live in the digital age where manufacturing is becoming more accessible, manufacturing still requires tangible goods. Finding suppliers and job shops close to international airports, train hubs, waterways, and major highways shows more flexibility when resources are strained.
Besides having diverse, well-positioned suppliers and manufacturing, finding companies that use technology appropriately may have a more sustainable capacity. In case studies from MachineMetrics, three manufacturers increased capacity and efficiency with machine monitoring. Industrial supplier Fastenal adopted an IIoT solution and documented that they ran over 100 hours per month faster, produced 150,000 more parts in three months, and increased machine usage by 11%.
Goods are shown moving along a conveyor belt in a manufacturing facility.
Another contract manufacturer, Carolina Precision, used IIoT technology to save $1.5 million and increase productivity by 20%. The third case study on Wiscon, a precision parts manufacturer, used the same technology to increase the company's overall capacity by 30% and operator efficiency by 48%.
Finding partners that have already integrated technology and software into their processes can show that they are operating effectively today. These companies might be less susceptible to market fluctuations tomorrow and are more likely to accept and adjust for future disruptions.
During the Pandemic
The shift to working from home, massive global marketplace shifts, and other difficulties exacerbated challenges in manufacturing. The biggest issues seemed to be related to the supply chain and workforce. There are many articles on the supply chain, so we'll summarize the findings. Companies must work towards diverse, robust, and transparent supply chains. Additionally, there should be redundancies and a plan for your supply chain in case of disruptions.
Workforce solutions may have been solved for many employees with remote work, software, and technology providers, albeit by force during the lockdown from the pandemic. In the future, hopefully, companies continue with a plan of action for remote workers. For employees that aren't able to work remotely, companies are more aware of digital and automation solutions that can reduce labor or offer more space and data tracking.
For example, StrongArm Technologies was quick to react and adapt its Fuse wearable to detect other workers' proximity to one another. The company's technology keeps workers safe by reducing injury and now can warn workers if they are getting too close to one another for future outbreaks or even the cold and flu season.
A lab technician working with a mask on to follow COVID-19 guidelines. Image used courtesy of Siemens
Also, the technology can track employee interactions anonymously. If one worker becomes sick, the technology can alert managers or employees that they may want to get tested or quarantine. Some problems persisted before, during, and will continue after the pandemic. Companies must continue to find robust supply chains, connected technology, and flexible solutions.
A Future of Disruption
Doing more with less will probably not go away. With economic and environmental challenges that seem to increase each year, companies need to know what is possible with automation and connected technology.
Companies should have a plan to operate remotely and in person. But remote or onsite, connected data will continue to reduce time and cost on production and maintenance. Manufacturing will continue to have a human component in some capacity. Manufacturers need to inform themselves not just about automation but what technology works with or amplifies workers.
Learning more about cobots, self-driving robots, and automation inventory equipment will be important. However, the biggest thing will be determining the change or amount of flexibility possible with technology and adjusting the ratio between labor and automation as a company experiences disruption.
Moving forward, companies will need to know what technology is available while operating in a constant flux between lean and robust systems.