This year has been a stressful year for many, including manufacturing company owners and leaders.
Many thought that 2019 was a tough year, with the trade war and skilled labor shortage. Then, in early spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the entire world economy. Some manufacturing areas, like food processing and medical equipment support, saw a huge increase in demand. Others were labeled nonessential and had to shut down. And some were forced to temporarily close due to employee health issues.
What has 2020 taught us?
We found that our supply chains are vulnerable, complex, and slower to change then we might have realized back in 2019. What do we need to do to improve them? As a manufacturer, you are somewhere along this supply chain. You might be at the start of a supply chain if you manufacture things like raw steel, in the middle if you produce tin cans for the food-processing industry, or the last stop before the product gets to the customer if you are an assembler or paint shop.
You need to understand all aspects of supply chains and fully grasp who you are depending on and who is depending on you. You can improve your supply chain by developing multiple sources for each item. Your sourcing should be international, national, regional, and local. You should also monitor your suppliers' stock and inventory to be able to react as quickly as possible when you need to increase orders, push orders to additional suppliers, or develop additional sources. You need to have cash on hand to increase your inventory of items that might become in short supply. Tools that have proven to be helpful for this are integrated ERP, MRP, and MES systems. These allow you to connect with suppliers and customers, seeing in real time what is going on in warehouses and production lines. A relatively new tool for supply chain management is the blockchain, a digital ledger that cannot be modified or changed once created and allows you to see and trace any part of a single order or component.
Automation has allowed some manufacturers to increase consistency and deal with the lack of staffing and skills gap. During the COVID pandemic, some manufacturers were able to keep production lines running as they were automated or switched to automation by deploying robots or cobots. Over the last two decades, automation has become easier to program, more reliable, and less expensive upfront. Camera systems and sensors have enabled operations to function without human presence. This enables real-time tracking of product and monitoring of performance. AI (artificial intelligence) assists with predicting equipment issues before failures happen. Cobot units are transportable and manufacturers can place them between human workstations, providing space for social distancing and allowing daily operations to continue. Manufacturers need to start looking at automation and AI as tools that can be used to overcome the lack of staff and allow them flexibility in case of a pandemic.
Tools like VR (Virtual Reality), AR (Augmented Reality), or MR (Mixed Reality) can be used to assist customers and employees when no one can stand next to them. This technology allows a skilled remote worker to assist and walk a customer or employee through a task or troubleshooting process they are not familiar with. These tools can also be used to record and transfer “tribal knowledge” to a workforce that has not yet arrived at your operation. MR has also been identified as a tool to increase employee skills and help attract a new workforce to manufacturing. These technologies are cool tools that allow employees to hit the floor at a higher level of production from day one. The possibilities for MR are only limited by your imagination.
My personal takeaway from what has happened in 2020 is the importance of preparation and crisis management. It all starts with recognizing that a crisis, something that will impact your business negatively, will likely happen at some point. Anticipating and being prepared for a crisis is half the battle. It is important to understand that there are technologies out there that can help you deal with issues or limit the impact to your business.
Most of the technologies listed above are relatively new and often thought of as being for larger manufacturers. But 2020 seems to prove they are just as valuable to small and mid-sized manufacturing operations. The key is to be open-minded, research available options, and implement technologies that can help your business stay ahead of your competition.