How digitalisation and decentralisation will help manufacturers succeed in a post-COVID-19 world

Jun 09
News Covid

It has become a cliché to talk about how life has altered, business as unusual or adapting to a new normal, but ultimately that’s what the COVID-19 pandemic has done – completely upended everything we knew and forced every aspect of living to change dramatically. It has forced everyone to look at their structures, patterns, and connections and realise just how resilient, or not, their organisations are.

Consider, for instance, manufacturing, which has seen a major fall in activity right across the world. In Asia, the likes of Japan and South Korea have suffered the fastest contraction of factory activity in a decade, according to the World Economic Forum. Elsewhere, Italy, one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, has imposed lockdowns which have forced the sector to either shut down completely or, in the case of automotive manufacturers like Fiat, stagger production, significantly impacting output.

Continuing to manufacture in a crisis

How does the industry react? Currently, factory owners and operators are wrestling with a number of questions that are not easily answered. According to a survey by the British Plastic Federation, more than 50% of plastic manufacturers stated that the coronavirus had impacted their staff’s ability to work - how can they maintain production when their staff has to observe social distancing? Are customers even receiving manufactured goods into their own warehouses and distribution centers? Can manufacturers actually stop production, irrespective of whether customers are ordering?

According to Make UK, the answer to the last question appears to be no – its 4th May Manufacturing Monitor reports that 86.5% of UK manufacturers have continued to trade during the crisis. While this may seem like a reason to be upbeat, the Monitor suggests that actually it could indicate that “firms in this sector are less able to halt production during a crisis. As a result, many manufacturers have reported significant falls in sales and orders indicating poor current and future trading expectations. Consequentially, cash-flow problems will continue to exacerbate over time.”

This highlights how many factories currently lack the agility to either switch off production completely, thereby saving cash as orders drop, or pivot to new practices if a shutdown is not possible. On top of that, many producers often have supply chains focused on a limited number of sourcing locations. In more extreme cases, this could lead to issues where production can’t stop, but materials can’t be sourced.

Adapt and decentralise your manufacturing

It may be a nightmare scenario, and no one knows exactly what the future holds, but one thing is clear – the ability to adapt has become vital to ensure resilience in light of the new challenges we face. One solution is taking a decentralised manufacturing approach – incorporating multiple plants in a variety of locations, rather than having a limited number of factories clustered in one or two geographies. Rather than concentrate efforts in one plant, businesses operating a decentralised approach can limit their exposure to a complete shutdown by using different locations to continue operating, while still adhering to government guidance. In short, spreading the risk.

However, decentralised manufacturing brings its own challenges. One of the key facets of centralised manufacturing is that decision-making power is often consolidated, with the senior management overseeing critical decisions. Decentralised manufacturing, in comparison, will often distribute decision-making power across locations and teams. To be effective and coordinated, manufacturers need to be able to make decisions quickly, potentially across numerous time zones. To do that, they need a complete overview of activity, powered by accurate, real-time data.

Visualising the key to decentralised manufacturing success

If they do not have that visualisation, manufacturers run the risk of an expensive, uncoordinated network of plants, undermining the benefits of taking a decentralised approach. The ability to scale up and down, adjust outputs and react quickly to challenges that could disrupt production are all incumbent on having that accurate view, a single version of the truth that can be accessed from anywhere in the world.

To do that, factories have to become more connected, or smarter. Manufacturers need to be able to combine machine monitoring hardware and software to digitise their existing facilities, bringing the theory of Industry 4.0, much discussed over the last few years, into reality. Why? Because it is the only way they can quickly capture the data they need to build that visualisation of their operations, without completely ripping out their plants and starting again.

Building smart manufacturing platforms and visual systems into your factories

It is the combination of two technologies – the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence. The former comes in sensors, easily attached to machinery, that capture output and productivity data and send it to a digital manufacturing platform. This uses AI to read and analyse that data, giving plant and factory managers the insights they need to make decisions quickly.

Cameras can also be incorporated, creating a smart vision system to provide firms with real-time visualization of workers and processes using edge computers and cameras. Alerts can be enabled which, when needed, ensure quick action, saving time and money, preventing costly and dangerous errors.

Not only can shop managers use a smart vision system to monitor their factories, but senior management can use the same insights, via the digital manufacturing platform, to oversee all facilities of a decentralised manufacturing approach.

It works from both a productivity and a health safety perspective. Bringing together IoT hardware and AI-powered software, machine monitoring technologies are able to analyse what is happening around a machine, detect hazardous conditions, fire and smoke, sudden falls and even the use of PPE detection, to help manufacturers effectively monitor their operations in real-time. At the same time, deep learning-based machine vision software helps to distinguishing the acceptable variations and defects in products, minimising human intervention while ensuring quality control.

Adapting to the new normal of manufacturing

It is clear that manufacturers need to think differently if they are to recover quickly from the impact of COVID-19 and build resilience to cope with whatever the next crisis is. Decentralisation offers a solution to prevent future chokepoints in production and ensure business continuity, but it needs to be properly enabled with the right technology.

That means digital solutions, specifically IoT and AI, that deliver smart manufacturing platforms with smart vision systems. By combining the two, in simple-to-use sensors and sophisticated software, with existing machinery, manufacturers can connect their facilities without exorbitant costs and time delays.

At ThingTrax we are transforming the ways manufacturers connect their facilities to increase productivity and ensure the ongoing health and safety of employees. To find out how you can achieve that, and create your own smart manufacturing platforms, speak to ThingTrax.