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Isaac Maw

Management

Will Digitalization Help Manufacturers Fare Better Post-Covid?

A look at how the pandemic has affected the progress of Industry 4.0

Published: Wednesday, May 19, 2021 - 12:03

The ongoing pandemic has pushed many jobs to virtual settings and home-based working environments. In industries outside manufacturing, it can be seen how the pandemic has affected business. For example, take a look at Zoom stock, the price of which quadrupled during the five months following March 2020. Some companies have done away with office space altogether, claiming that they’ll stay the course on remote work even after the dust (and aerosolized nasal droplets) finally settles.

According to a recent report from Colliers, manufacturing facilities were initial hotbeds for the spread of Covid, forcing plant closures. Companies that were able to maintain some level of production saw shipping costs increase as much as four times due to logistical constraints, as global port productivity ground to a halt. Many goods that finally made it to shore were forced into temporary warehouses as the retail stores, to which they were destined, remained closed.

The Covid pandemic has led to global shipping delays.
The Covid pandemic has led to global shipping delays. (Image courtesy of Horizon Auto Shipping.)

Although the manufacturing industry has many essential positions that require in-person workers, the push for social distancing and reduced capacity has intersected with an existing skills gap and personnel issues that have plagued North American and European manufacturing operations for years. So, what does that mean?

Automation

Economic recessions have historically led to boosts in automation. According to Brookings, any coronavirus-related recession is likely to bring about a spike in labor-replacing automation. Research has shown that over three recessions in the past 30 years, a whopping 88 percent of job loss took place in “routine” automatable occupations. Couple that with the push for social distancing and reduced human interaction, and this effect may turn out to be even more pronounced. Notably, this research is across the entire workforce and not just manufacturing.

According to some sources, a considerable number of factories are pushing for advanced automation as the solution to Covid-correlated personnel problems. Industrial robots have always been a solution for dull, dirty, and dangerous jobs—though, admittedly, whoever coined that phrase likely didn’t consider the danger to be a co-worker’s cough.

Difficult economic times can cause companies to become more averse to risk, but it can also stimulate innovation. Although some manufacturers are hesitating to procure large-scale automation projects, others have just received an order for millions of medical devices or PPE and need to upgrade capacity. However, in many cases, now may not seem like the best time to undergo a digital transformation. Some analysts are skeptical of the possibilities of advanced automation as a response to the pandemic.

“Before Covid-19 struck, industrial automation was slowed by flat capital expenditure and declining industrial production,” says David Bicknell, principal analyst at GlobalData, a consulting firm. “The virus has exposed the fact that despite the hype, advanced factory automation has not substituted human workers at scale. Technologies, such as cloud-orchestrated AI for assembly-line robotics, have either been insufficiently developed or too difficult to use.”

Targeted solutions

For manufacturers looking to automation as a solution, it’s likely that small, targeted solutions will be a better starting point than plant-scale projects. Collaborative robot manufacturer Robotiq has launched an initiative to deploy collaborative robot cells in two weeks for manufacturing companies working to increase the capacity of essential items.

All Axis Machining, a metal fabricator in Dallas, already had a small team of UR cobots on the shop floor performing an array of tasks, including machine tending, sanding, deburring, and wire electrical-discharge machining. Automating with cobots a couple of years ago increased spindle run time from 8 to 20 hours a day.

A universal robot in place at All Axis Machining.
A universal robot in place at All Axis Machining. (Image courtesy of All Axis Machining.)

“Now, we have just a few people in the shop, and the cobots’ better productivity results in lower operating costs and more manufacturing hours available,” says Gary Kuzmin, owner and CEO. “It’s the best thing I ever did.”

In the midst of the pandemic, All Axis added two more UR cobots to keep its tools at maximum capacity and help socially distance the shop’s manual labor. It also added a weekend shift to disperse staff density. The company now has eight cobots running 24/7 across three shifts. The third shift is completely lights-out.

Opportunities

Some critics may note that the pandemic has, in many regions, massively increased the unemployment rate, and replacing factory workers with machines won’t help things. However, automation proponents claim—as they always have—that automation can create opportunities for human workers.

“The most competitive industrial enterprise combines advanced tech with a workforce comfortable with interacting with that tech and is valued for uniquely human attributes like decision-making skills,” says Blake Moret, Rockwell Automation chairman and CEO. “If you combine a skilled and engaged workforce with advanced tech, you make a more successful company that can do more, hire more people, and profitably engage in new lines of business. It’s a beneficial spiral.”

McKinsey points out that automation will likely affect the labor force in a mix of negative and positive ways. As routine tasks are automated, new jobs will open up.

Zooming out from the factory floor itself, the pandemic has also affected go-to-market strategy, supply chains, and logistics for many manufacturers—to say nothing of the recent events on the Suez Canal. Although certain products saw booming demand, others lagged. Overseas shipping struggled to keep up with the global economy’s shifting needs. Supply-chain data analysis ideas, such as those from manufacturing solutions provider, JABIL, and the analysis of manufacturing data may guard against this volatility for manufacturers.

According to a recent white paper by Siemens, a company’s economic power, productivity, and market success depend substantially on how intelligently and efficiently that company uses the data produced in its operations—and what data are even available. The fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, can be described as the consistent and automated use of every available fact, data, and forecast to control the operational processes necessary to engage the market in the best possible way. Key objectives include taking advantage of upcoming market and business opportunities as quickly as possible, enhancing flexibility, and increasing quality.

Siemens also recently released Manage MyMachines, an app within the MindSphere portfolio. Manage MyMachines is integrated into the cloud-based, open internet of things (IoT) operating system, as it allows access to all critical machine tool information, from bearing temperature to production by shift or job, all in a selectable priority scale based on user needs. Unexpected line downtimes and off-normal machine kinematic conditions can be quickly identified and rectified. Better yet, predictive maintenance can be programmed, so an upcoming failure can be anticipated, with alerts sent to a local distributor, for example.

These types of technologies can assist manufacturing operations that are forced to move employees to remote work.

As a final thought on how the pandemic may intersect with new manufacturing technologies, consider the distributed manufacturing ideas emerging in additive manufacturing. As Covid-19 exposes weaknesses in the global supply chain, manufacturers are looking for resilience and reliability, reshoring, and nearshoring as alternatives. The concept of additively manufactured parts and products nearer to where they’re needed may be increasingly attractive.

Although no one can say the pandemic has been a good thing, it has undoubtedly forced the manufacturing industry to identify weak points, build resilience, and consider alternatives to the way many things have been conventionally done. For big ideas like the fourth industrial revolution, times of change sometimes lead to new opportunities.

First published April 25, 2021, on the engineering.com blog.

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About The Author

Isaac Maw’s picture

Isaac Maw

Isaac Maw is Associate Editor of Manufacturing at ENGINEERING.com. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication. He is a passionate writer and a skilled online researcher and marketer.