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Technology Takes Center Stage As Manufacturers Pivot

Pivoting from daily operations in order to fulfill an urgent need is never easy. However, the right technology can make a world of difference.

Headline after headline, we are seeing a wide array of manufacturers embark on major pivots away from their daily offerings to produce an array of products out of necessity. Ventilators, masks, gowns, shields. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to creep along, the list of products continues to grow. And its growth demonstrates the qualities that the editors at IndustryWeek have consistently touted over the years. Simply put, manufacturing in America is strong. 

No doubt, it is heartwarming to see so many companies step up to the plate during a global crisis. This ability to step up also demonstrates determination, innovation, flexibility, strategy and agility. Let’s be clear, the pivots these organizations are embarking upon are not easy. They require strengths that do not always see the spotlight including a skilled workforce, diverse supply chain, a culture that thrives when facing adversity and strategic investments in technology.

As Martin Petrick, PharmaSuite MES product manager at Rockwell Automation explains, this type of shift is possible only when operations have been designed and set up for agility.  “It is dependent on tools and processes for supply chain planning, availability of materials, and people, product lifecycle management, product specifications management, manufacturing procedures, plant configuration flexibility, the flexibility of the manufacturing equipment and very importantly the ability to embed quality control regimens in the manufacturing process and track and trace product and the components the product is made up of,” he says.

Which technologies matter most?

According to a recent survey by Pulse, as companies shift, 49% of businesses are using robotics or automation to help frontline workers both pivot to produce new products and cope with the production challenges associated with COVID-19 crisis. Petrick agrees. “Flexible manufacturing setups with higher levels of automation makes operator support easier. Also, modular equipment that can be easily reconfigured is immensely helpful,” he says. “Any technology that allows the people who set up and operate equipment to be guided – to augment their skillsets – is extremely helpful.”

As each of the individual pivots listed below spotlight, an array of task-specific manufacturing technologies and capabilities are understandably shining through as key enablers:

  • “Our expert sewers together with our 3D printing technology, allowed us to quickly pivot and produce face masks from organic cotton fabric that we use in the manufacturing of our organic mattresses,” says Naturepedic President Jeffery Cik. “The custom 3D-printed clasps allow the masks to be adjustable for a better and more comfortable fit.”
  • “Our previous product development in healthcare has given us a strong foundation in product development, rapid prototyping, and responsiveness to healthcare needs,” says Deborah Theobald CEO and Co-Founder of Vecna Technologies, who has teamed up with MIT CSAIL, 10XBeta, Vecna Robotics and Vecna Cares to produce a ventilator. “Our work in low resource areas has been critical to our flexibility, especially in extenuating circumstances such as these.”
  • “Recent investments in additional 3D printers allowed CMD to pivot from dedicating all of our printers to prototypes and parts production to freeing up some printer time to be used to make the parts for the face shields,” says Ron Buchinger, director of operations, CMD.
  • According to Sal Geraci, COO at National Safety Apparel because of a dynamic shop floor control solution, “we will be able to monitor production activities on the factory floor in real-time,” he says. “With the increased transparency, we are able to pivot as needed to meet demand.”

While an array of technology investments are undoubtedly playing an instrumental role in enabling manufacturers to pivot, perhaps the most telling response comes from the CEO of Cleveland-based manufacturing group Dan T. Moore stressing the importance of “having a flexible, broadly educated, rangy technology component that was not tied down to any one specific product.”

Digital’s day

The ability to quickly and successfully pivot has a lot to do with each manufacturer’s decision to invest in digital technologies, according to Todd Rovak, global head of innovation and strategy at Capgemini Invent, who says that digital transformation including the streamlining of core applications and the adoption of market facing solutions is helping manufacturers rapidly mobilize and alternate their production output to much-needed items, including ventilators.

“Companies that have invested in digital transformation are well positioned to sustain through these changes and be on a faster track to their relaunch and recovery objectives,” says Rovak.  “On the other hand, companies that were planning to embark on digital transformation efforts or have not yet planned to do so are recognizing the value of such efforts and will likely have objectives to prioritize their own transformation programs in the year ahead.” 

And, while a recent Accenture study shows that only 22 percent of industrial companies saw they have seen expected returns from digital innovation projects, Nigel Stacey, managing director and global lead of Accenture Industry X.0 explains that execution and leadership are two main differences between those who get it right and those who that don’t.

Maximizing digital investments requires you to exercise your execution muscles, explains Stacey:

  • Industrial companies need to have a clear definition of the value they hope to achieve for the business. They then need to implement these digital changes in waves so that their employees can adapt as needed – this can’t happen overnight. 
  • They must focus on growing digital capabilities and talent internally. 
  • Company leaders need to analyze their businesses and make changes to technology, where it will yield the most use and the best results.
  • It’s vital to treat digital spending as investment, not cost. Give the people who use the funds the time and room to experiment and build. Also, expect some things to go slightly wrong before they improve.

“Recognizing value from digital and technology investments requires staying power. A leader needs to be able to keep the organization and its people energized, even more so in industrial companies with its many multi-million dollar projects and long planning and execution phases,” says Stacey.

Connecting the Worker

The importance of the connected worker has never been clearer. With any new product comes new processes, a heightened importance for these processes to be closely followed, and the need to quickly adapt and scale best practices as we learn from data, explains Parsable CEO Lawrence Whittle. This is especially true when thinking about the frontline human workers executing these processes, they need to be able to do their work safely and efficiently, with no mistakes.

“They need to produce a high-quality end-product at a time of great demand, in an environment where experts and assistance are now often working from home. Manufacturers that use connected worker technology can provide workers with digital standard operating procedures and step-by-step, multimedia guidance as work is performed, including additional health and safety checks,” says Whittle. “The technology also provides immediate validation of procedural adherence, in-the-moment training, and real-time collaboration between the frontlines and remote experts.”

George Lewis, head of strategy at Arena, agrees adding that organizations already possessing a strong culture of connectivity often have a higher degree of flexibility. “Those organizations whose culture allowed them to embrace cloud-native solutions (i.e. for tasks like virtual communication or collaborative product lifecycle management), felt less of an impact since both the culture and business systems are more nimble,” he says. “Technology solutions that strengthen collaboration across partnerships will make organizations more agile and resistant in difficult times.”

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