If you are like me, you have had some quiet time to consider what is on the horizon once the dust settles from COVID-19 (one of the luxuries given to us by the quarantine). Largely over the past two decades, we have seen most manufacturing projects focused on optimization, increasing capacity and product quality improvements. As I consider this trend and watch how ill-prepared many companies were for a pandemic, I came to some conclusions on the type of initiatives that will be budgeted in 2021.

During the pandemic, a few manufacturers have done a miraculous job building capacity and ensuring their products are going out the door faster than ever. P&G comes to mind, as they have ramped production in several facilities by taking production lines once moth balled and recommissioning them to manufacture the paper goods we rely upon every day. Most P&G facilities have optimized their processes to operate at peak capacity and were already running 24/7, so adding shifts are a challenge. I know firsthand that they have invested heavily in digitalization over the past 15 years and were in a good position entering the pandemic. But we have seen other manufacturers struggle with dated manufacturing processes and supply chains. Production capacity was not flexible and their raw material suppliers weren’t as digital as they should have been by 2020.

Yes, I am saying that a digital organization is better prepared for a pandemic than one still reliant on paper logbooks, paper charts, manual labor-intensive inventories, and air gapped ERPs to the manufacturing control systems.  I believe these gaps were naturally highlighted by the pandemic. So, I believe there will be a push and prioritization by Boards and CEO’s to ensure their manufacturing operations are not caught flat footed next time.  I believe initiatives focused on Production Continuity will be prioritized and funded over initiatives focused on Production Optimization.  Situations like the meat processing plants where 200 employees get ill and cause the shutdown of production, and subsequently the facility, are highlighting a vulnerability in the current mode of operation which requires the majority of the operational staff to be in close proximity to one another to perform day to day functions.  I believe that companies will review transmission vectors, like paper-based systems, and be scrutinized to find digital solutions.  Obviously, stations with plexiglass sneeze guards, face masks, and other PPE are being rapidly put in place today, but these solutions aren’t the end state.  There will be pressure on suppliers to demonstrate their digital readiness to ensure they can supply raw materials to their customers without interruption because every manufacturer relies on raw materials to produce their goods and if those are not available then they might as well not be open for business either.  The weakest link in the supply chain could very well be the cause of a bad quarter, or year, even when manufacturers have done their due diligence with proper investment strategies.

So, I have taken this pause to paint a vision for our team on what a post COVID-19 manufacturer will look like and how digital solutions will work in concert with one another to reduce the number of people-to-people interactions and enable a more agile remote workforce.  Below are some examples of where I see investments in technologies being made:

  • Unified Operations Center (UOC) – This is an enablement of the remote worker. Centralized within one portal, the HMI is available in concert with P&IDs, Electrical drawings, and Operating Procedures  —  context driven based on the equipment selected.  A google maps view of your facility based on 3-D scans (Dude, not as expensive as you think) and/or virtual representations of the process and systems.  Live video streams and ASM (Abnormal Situation Management) graphics working in concert with each other.
  • Augmented Reality – AR can provide OJT to broader skilled onsite resources to address maintenance problems without the need for an onsite trainer or specialized skill trade present.
  • Work Order Management – A tightly integrated work order management solution that enables operators to know what product to make without paper production schedules being passed around.
  • Real-time Inventory Management – To enable a more remote workforce, digital solutions will be needed to manage: What will be made, what has been made, work in progress, and raw materials consumed.  This real-time data will enable operations to make decisions without being required to be on premise and manually inventory stock. I would say that 80% of manufacturers are still air gapped to their ERP and require manual intervention or data entry.
  • Digitized Management of Change processes – Many organizations still require paper processes to be used to approve change requests.  These papers float across management waiting for signatures.  A digital solution removes another transmission vector and enables staff to be anywhere to review and approve change requests.
  • Mobility – Bring Your Own Device – Obviously shared tablets and computers are prominent transmission vectors for a virus.  I see applications that enable users to use their own personal devices to manage the facility will be in favor over shared assets.
  • SCADA vs HMI – Upgrades of current stand-alone HMIs, to distributed systems could be an upcoming trend because disconnected HMIs don’t provide global visibility to a remote engineer or technician for troubleshooting.

Look, obviously I don’t have a crystal ball.  I mean, the same person who invented an internet money transfer company just launched a spaceship and docked it with the International Space Station.  Who would have predicted the dissolution of the US Space program and the rise of SpaceX to fill the gap 20 years ago when he created it?  So, besides Mr. Musk and his crystal ball, what I do have is an inside look into several manufacturers across many industries and from what I am seeing, the next year will be interesting for sure.