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While a few manufacturers have retooled their plants to do battle with COVID-19 by churning out respirators, face shields, fabric masks, etc., many others have called a retreat. Companies that survive the pandemic’s initial impact will face hard questions from their board on their resiliency. Manufacturers with Industry 4.0 capabilities and virtual workplaces should have more effective tools to help mitigate the impact of any new pandemic that arises — or later waves of COVID-19, should they emerge. Here are some steps toward hardening resiliency that manufacturers should consider:

  • Accelerate the virtual workplace. Manufacturers have extensive factory and process control systems, IT systems and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. By adopting the virtual workplace faster and using an integration platform to meld data from these systems, manufacturers can create granular, real-time views of their business and operations from anywhere. Data can flow across supply chains, enabling partners to identify trends as they emerge. This in turn will lead to quicker, better decisions about where to redeploy raw materials, shipments and personnel — such as scaling back plant operations in a virus hot zone while ramping them up in a recovering area.
  • Extend manufacturing networks with blockchain and additive manufacturing. With mature integration, it becomes easier to use smart contracts with blockchain’s distributed ledgers to transact with networks of smaller suppliers and regional manufacturers, ensuring a wide variety of sources for parts and material or even finished goods. This requires manufacturers to adopt the mindset that innovation, inspiration and product design are their intellectual property. Wider networks enable greater resiliency in a downturn.
  • Deploy more IoT-enabled sensors and devices. Internet of Things (IoT) adoption has been turning every device, and even components within a device, into a data creator over the past few years. Thorough application of sensor technology on the factory floor can eliminate blind spots, giving management or visualization systems a holistic view of operations that can be operated and monitored remotely. When the data from these sensors is integrated with business and engineering systems, then analyzed, these management systems can also predict an assembly line failure before it happens.
  • Use VR/AR tools. In order to operate at full production capacity while adhering to new social-distancing norms (which will likely drive a reduction in shop-floor headcount), manufacturers will have to speed their adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR). For example, consider a scenario in which only a third of the workforce is managing the factory floor, with the remaining two-thirds working remotely. In such a scenario, if drilling or milling equipment requires servicing or maintenance in the factory, the specialist on duty that day may use an AR headset or hologram to perform the work with virtual support from remote specialists.
  • Remote video monitoring. Specialists at home can be alerted via video analytics and predictive IoT to review a process station and help diagnose issues or guide on-site repairs. The technology also could be used for remote visual inspections. The high capacity, speed and low latency of new 5G wireless networks will make it possible to stream video data to a local cloud endpoint for quick analysis.

As manufacturers implement these components of Industry 4.0, it’s vital that they have a strong business vision underlying and unifying their efforts. Pandemic readiness should be one aspect of that vision. That entails securing the plant and keeping employees and partners safe — at the same time making their specialized knowledge readily available, both in the facility and across the supply chain. Accelerating digital enhancement and Industry 4.0 will help achieve those goals while also enabling the business to run with greater resiliency and flexibility to meet competitive demands.

Visit our COVID-19 resources page for additional insights and updates.