How COVID-19 will shape the future of manufacturing
Forbes predicts that due to COVID-19, manufacturing will experience five years of innovation in the next 18 months. This is due largely in part to the environments in which manufacturers operate being forced to change, as under-resourced teams are challenged to solve problems short-staffed. Couple that with demand volatility, and there's a clear need to innovate and to innovate fast.
If there's one glaring lesson we can learn from COVID-19, it's that agility is key and that companies need to prepare for the unexpected. In the short-term, companies will likely place additional value on flexibility/agility that people working within manufacturing environments can provide, an area where machines often fall short. This means adapting to demand that fluctuates (for instance, a drop in demand for gasoline while demand for toilet paper skyrockets) as well as a supply chain that may experience disruptions and shortages.
Looking more long-term, firms will need to reexamine their operations processes with humans in mind. This means being more sensitive to possible disruptive events, so risk management practices will need to change. This also means being more conscious of risks that they wouldn't normally consider in day-to-day operations - not just equipment issues, but issues that may require operating with a fraction of their normal employees. So how can firms mitigate these often-unpredictable risks?
Industrial wearables will likely be on the rise, as firms look for a way to keep a closer eye on employees, their whereabouts, and their health for safety reasons. Infrared technologies will be critical to check for elevated body temperatures, and connected vehicles will potentially become part of the employee-tracing equation. All these technologies also bring up major data privacy concerns, so firms need to be conscious that they're encroaching on people's privacy. Striking a balance between helpful and invasive is key.
One more major issue that will continue to impact the manufacturing sector is one that was around before COVID-19, and will likely be exacerbated: an aging workforce. A lot of manufacturing work tends to be on-the-job, hands-on, and visual, and the same goes for training. With a lot of the workforce moving towards retirement, there's a major need for effective knowledge transfer, which is made significantly harder by social distancing and remote work. For example, when it comes to troubleshooting an engine, simply writing out the steps isn't good enough. Experience is what teaches you to look for certain things, and logic follows. We may see a rise in AI techniques being used to capture tacit knowledge, such as interactions between mentors and mentees, which would be crucial to knowledge transfer to the next generation of manufacturers.
Bottom line - will we see a lot of technology innovation in a short time frame? Not necessarily. What we will see; however, is innovation in how existing technologies are applied, so that manufacturers can be more agile and more prepared for any other unforeseen global events.