COVID-19 has had an indelible impact on the entire world and has forced manufacturers to ask themselves how they will continue operating both now and after the pandemic begins to slow down. The reality is that COVID-19 will be with us for some time, with best-case scenarios projecting several years before we get back to pre-pandemic levels of activity and operations. But while that paints a tricky picture for the years ahead, businesses can’t stay closed forever and manufacturers everywhere are trying to answer the question: how do you maintain your max output and efficiency when your workforce is a fraction of what it used to be?
For our parent company, Axiom Group, only 67% of their workforce returned from 100% who were called back. The resulting expenses associated with overtime and temp agencies forced them to again look at how they were working and how to maximize production with what was available, without exhausting manpower and resources.
As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and COVID-19 has proven to be an opportunity to improve workplace manufacturing processes in several ways.
Manufacturing without shop staff
The Association for Manufacturing Excellence (AME) recently released a white paper entitled “A Manufacturing Marshall Plan”, which outlines their proposed steps for preventing post-pandemic supply chain disruptions, advancing manufacturing productivity and reskilling workforces. One of their recommendations includes the digitization of manufacturing operations, as “factories are evolving from the pre-automation plants of the past to the smart [automated] factories of the future.”
What this means is a shift from hands-on to hands-off manufacturing, with floor staff getting retrained as systems and technical engineers who oversee dozens of machines simultaneously rather than single one-to-one machine monitoring. However, before manufacturers can start the retraining process, they need tools and systems in place that can provide access to real-time data and reporting. Thankfully, there are several systems on the market that provide this access, including the Smart Attend, so the real question is whether manufacturers are ready to make the leap to using industry 4.0 technology or if they still have reservations.
For those who have been holding off from adopting an IIoT strategy, COVID may be forcing their hand as the costs associated with operating at a reduced level far exceed the cost of implementing a machine monitoring system. For example, by training and focusing their available team to work across multiple production machines, companies like Axiom Group have actually managed to improve their OEE and increase output to levels higher than before the pandemic with just two-thirds of the staff.
With manufacturers facing the same situation globally, operating their plants without staff is a reality that they are being forced to consider. As the AME suggests, digitization and retraining of employees is a viable and readily available path forward.
Utilizing “Just-In-Time“ strategies
The premise of “Just-in-Time” (or JIT) manufacturing is, exactly as the name suggests, the practice of producing products “just in time”; a product is manufactured on an as-needed basis by demand, and no extra inventory is stored. For those not familiar, JIT is a term synonymous with Lean Manufacturing, a manufacturing methodology developed by Toyota in the 1930s and popularized globally in the 90s, which emphasizes reducing barriers to production along with producing only what you need when you need it.
For manufacturers facing labour shortages and difficulties receiving raw supplies, JIT manufacturing offers a strategy to reduce output to only what is needed for existing orders as opposed to keeping significant inventory on hand. This can also reduce costs by reducing or eliminating the need for expensive warehousing of finished product.
Importantly, for JIT to be truly successful, assembly lines require heavy automation and real-time data management to maximize efficiency with less inventory. Machines need to be programmed to turn themselves off, kick back scrap, etc. But, for those who feel it is a good fit for them, the benefits are far-reaching.
Improving data aggregation, reporting, and management
Perhaps a less obvious player when it comes to efficiency in manufacturing plants is the calibre of data aggregation, reporting, and management. Manual book-keeping and data compilation lend themselves to human error and can be excessively time-consuming. The “cloud” function of data systems like Smart Attend offers real-time data, efficiency monitoring, and customized reporting that reduce the need for in-person and paper-based communication between shifts and locations.
As we start to examine what a post-pandemic world will look like for manufacturing, streamlining data management will be imperative to the development of smart factories and skilled workforces. Smart Attend’s system offers unparalleled access to operational and production data by reducing downtime and improving communication between machines and production teams.
What does the “new normal” look like?
As the COVID-19 situation rapidly evolves with the possibility of future outbreaks or “waves” on the horizon, alternatives to typical manufacturing processes have become more and more appealing – or operationally necessary. Implementing new Industry 4.0 technologies, retraining staff, and revisiting production methodologies are all ways that manufacturers can address the problems being faced today and tomorrow.
We might be exhausted from hearing the phrase “the new normal”, but there’s no denying that with it has come a host of new strategies and innovations that will change manufacturing as we know it for decades to come.