Manufacturers continuously face uncertainty, risk, and volatility in their everyday operations, and their response to those challenges ultimately impacts their business performance and bottom line. Routinely, manufacturers must adapt to:
- interruptions to upstream supply chains
- volatility in demand from consumer markets
- competitor activities
- political or economic influences
- relatively “minor” operational events, such as machinery failure or quality compliance breaches
All have varying degrees of impact on manufacturing operations, and all require agility and flexibility.
However, while uncertainty, risk, and volatility are simply givens in manufacturing, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on manufacturing could eclipse all of these typical disruptions and challenges. Quite frankly, in some manufacturing sectors, the virus could have the most serious impact of any single event in living memory.
Although the impact of the global pandemic is already far-reaching, technology solutions are available to help manufacturers cope with the burden of adapting. And those technologies can provide not just immediate, tactical solutions to current pressures but also enable organizations to build flexibility into their production operations so they can better cope with future disruptions.
Impact: Fast, Dramatic Shifts Ripple Across the Industry
Even in the midst of dealing with the current situation, it’s clear that this is a unique event. What amplifies it is the sheer breadth and scale of the potential impact.
For manufacturers that rely even modestly on manual labor within the production process, the availability of that workforce has been severely limited as workers become ill or are required to self-isolate and practice social distancing for extended periods. Government interventions, such as travel or work restrictions, are also impacting the available workforce.
Likewise, across supply chains, restrictions or delays are affecting the availability of critical raw materials, ingredients, or components used throughout the manufacturing process and packaging. These impacts have hit especially hard the companies that rely on supplies from critically affected countries such as China, Italy, and South Korea.
Whatever happens “upstream” directly affects everything and everybody “downstream.” Downstream companies—like shippers and packagers—are expected to be hit hard, too. Manufacturers are challenged to get manufactured goods to consumers due to significant disruptions to global, regional, and local logistics, and wholesale and retail chains.
Beyond the supply/demand chain and the manufacturing process itself, economists and governments are predicting severe short-term economic implications. This will have severe ramifications on the demand profiles that manufacturers rely on to predict supply and demand to meet consumer needs.
Around the world, we are seeing the stockpiling of products such as food, sanitary supplies, hygiene and cleaning products, and medicines. This behavior disrupts short- and medium-term demand profiles—making production and inventory planning particularly challenging.
And, of course, there is the impact on cost and pricing, margins, and (of course) profitability. It’s truly a global economy, and everyone is feeling the pressure.
The Burden on Manufacturers
Manufacturing companies have the added burden of needing to take rigorous steps to safeguard and protect the health and well-being of their employees, contractors, and even onsite visitors. The current chaos doesn’t mean audits, regulatory inspections, and safety inspections will stop. On the contrary—it’s even more important now to be on top of employee and product safety and compliance.
While there is currently no evidence of a direct infection route through contaminated products, that is not evidence of absence either. Manufacturers will increasingly have to navigate the risks of potential product contamination from infected production line workers.
Preparing for the Long Term
As the pandemic unfolds, the picture is changing daily, if not hourly, and at this stage, no one really knows how deep the impacts will go, how long they will persist, or how long the recovery phase will take.
From a manufacturing perspective, there is no avoiding these impacts, and different organizations in different sectors may feel the effects in varied ways. Some may find their products in high demand, requiring an increased output even as the organization deals with fewer workers on the plant floor—and the need to enable some workers to do their jobs remotely. Other companies will need to throttle down or even suspend manufacturing operations, requiring that they optimize every possible efficiency to protect their bottom line.
Technology Can Offer a Helping Hand
While manufacturers fight the daily operational fires that this virus has ignited, they must also be cognizant of opportunities to limit or mitigate the risks. Technology can play a vital role.
Technology that enables the automation and digital transformation of manufacturing operations can significantly help to create a more flexible, agile, and responsive manufacturing environment—enabling manufacturers to better respond to uncertainty, volatility, and risk.
- Further automating manufacturing operations and replacing manual processes with automated alternatives can help to mitigate workforce availability challenges.
- Manufacturers can also explore technology solutions to make workers more efficient and productive, helping manufacturers to achieve the same or more output with a smaller workforce.
- And cloud-based software solutions can enable communication and coordination among onsite and remote workers, keeping everyone in sync and providing them with the information they need to do their jobs.
The Challenge of Time
And, finally, production downtime should not mean unproductive time, especially for management levels and above.
One of the typical challenges in digital transformation projects, for example, is time. Because we are so busy managing our day-to-day operations, we often struggle to dedicate the resources these projects require. Yet many of these projects can be researched, explored, planned, and cultivated remotely.
So, while key members of the workforce are no longer onsite—self-isolating or simply working remotely—this may be the right time to work on the strategic projects that can deliver significant, beneficial, long-term impacts.
Working Remotely on Questions That Matter
Remote workers may take the opportunity to answer a number of key questions your organization might not otherwise address:
- What do we need to know about how to improve our production processes that we don’t know at the moment? (Discovery)
- How can we better understand the variables that affect the quality of our processes? (Lean Six Sigma)
- What data do we need to be able to do that? (Data Collection Planning)
- What solutions exist that could help? (Research)
All of these questions can be addressed remotely—all you need is an internet connection. I guess we can think of it as an opportunity to provide some value while we’re out of the office or plant.
We all face some interesting and tumultuous times ahead. But we face them together. For the days and weeks to come, we wish all our manufacturing colleagues the very best. We hope we can all stay productive. Please stay safe.
To support the manufacturing community during these challenging times, InfinityQS is offering our cloud-based Quality Intelligence solution, Enact, free for 3 months. To learn more and enroll, visit our website.