2020 was a trying year, to say the least. But 2021 holds promise for manufacturing as data becomes widely accepted as the single most critical feature of the journey to our hoped-for “new normal.”

The key is not just data in and of itself—but how data is captured, stored, accessed, analyzed, and utilized to ensure that manufacturers remain as agile, efficient, productive, and cost effective as possible. This is the year of the cloud in manufacturing.

Glacier Moves Toward Digital Transformation

At the end of 2019, manufacturers already faced numerous challenges:

  • Changing consumer trends driving demand for better, faster, and cheaper products
  • Consumer sensitivity to ethical business practices including waste reduction, environmental impact, ethical manufacturing, re-use, recycling, and upcycling
  • Increased competition as a result of social media, online marketplaces, and review and rating sites that help create a fickle, mobile consumer
  • Advances in global logistics, breaking down geo-competitive boundaries and making global markets for manufactured goods frictionless and more intensely competitive
  • Significant increases in demand volatility and uncertainty across markets

These challenges made manufacturing optimization a major focus for manufacturers going into 2020. They would be prioritizing the technology and infrastructure needed to maximize agility, performance, productivity, and efficiency. This type of digital transformation has been proven across industries as an effective tool in mitigating the myriad risks of increasingly fluid, competitive, and volatile markets. 

Widely known as “Industry 4.0” or “smart manufacturing” (depending on your preference for technical jargon), digital transformation in manufacturing has typically taken the form of long-term initiatives requiring many years to come to fruition. But the pace of that transformation significantly picked up in 2020.

The Year of Crisis

As the impact of COVID-19 progressed, it exposed all the weak points in outdated systems and processes, and this had a significant impact on how manufacturers were able to respond.

Manufacturers that had taken a gradual approach to digital transformation struggled to cope with numerous immediate challenges:

  • The almost instantaneous shift to online shopping
  • Disruption and delay across the supply chain
  • Dramatically increased demand for some goods—and shocking reductions in demand for others
  • Remote and distanced work—in an industry not accustomed to either limited contact on the plant floor or providing connectivity for remote workers 

Since the crisis began, those in the sector have continued to fight fires on multiple fronts to protect their businesses, strengthen supply chains, and support consumers.

Bring on the Cloud

Over the last few years, cloud computing has slowly been gathering momentum in the manufacturing sector, especially for the collection of plant-floor data. Lingering concerns over data sovereignty, privacy, and security are often misplaced given the robust nature and sophistication of today’s cloud-based solutions.

Access to data, information, intelligence, and analytics was a major challenge for manufacturers in 2020, and many organizations have seen their adaptation impeded by the fact that the data required to quickly make critical decisions have not been available when needed most. If available, that data was usually isolated on the plant floor, on an HMI/SCADA interface, or on a legacy system not easily accessible away from the plant floor. 

The need to access critical production and quality data remotely has become a critical requirement. 

The term “remote working” in manufacturing does not always mean working offsite (such as at home). It can also include working from the back office or in another part of a sprawling campus. It also describes plant floor changes to protect workers’ health and wellbeing—limiting the amount of surface contact by multiple workers on the plant floor and reducing the number of employees using the same workstations or machine interfaces. 

Secure cloud-based solutions solve many of the problems of enabling and supporting remote workers. 

  • When data is accessible in the cloud, users can work with the information they need from any location, on any device with a web browser. 
  • Cloud solutions can be adopted rapidly, scaled as needed, and operated remotely. 
  • Subscription-style cloud software pricing models easily scale as adoption increases (or decreases) to support any manufacturer’s business needs. 

These proven benefits far outweigh the perceived negatives of cloud solutions. This is why cloud adoption for plant-floor production data will gain significant momentum as manufacturers pivot away from a position of “would consider cloud” toward a “cloud-first” mentality and strategy.

Moving Forward with Tactical Digital Transformation

Moving forward, the single most important challenge for manufacturers will be to re-engineer their systems, architectures, and operating models to ensure that they are better prepared to respond to any future risks.

We are seeing the pace of digital transformation projects dramatically increase. Many commentators have posited that 5-10 years’ worth of digital transformation progress (measured on 2019 scales) will be achieved in the next 12-18 months (measured on 2020 scales). 

Enterprise-wide, strategic goals for digital transformation will become a tactical priority throughout 2021 as manufacturers attempt to solve very specific challenges and tackle areas of weakness on a case-by-case basis using digital transformation approaches.

The Year of Sustainable Resilience

Ultimately, embracing the value of data and the opportunities and benefits of the cloud will deliver rapid and ongoing advantages for manufacturers.

The move to the cloud will enable manufacturers to truly transform themselves from the “rapid response” and “firefighting” modes of 2020 to sustainable resilience in 2021—and beyond.

The manufacturing industry has responded with amazing adaptability to the challenges of this crisis. From front line operators to senior executives and all those allied to the manufacturing sector in the products and services they provide, it is a proud and resilient community.

For the past decade, InfinityQS has provided manufacturers with a practical, cost-effective, cloud-based quality management solutions. Learn how our Enact® Quality Intelligence Platform can help you create a roadmap to digitally transforming your operations.