COVID encouraging small and mid-sized manufacturers to use new technologies

Nov. 5, 2020
The little guys have traits that suit digital transformation. We can learn from them.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, technology was front-of-mind for small- and mid-sized manufacturers who were trying to switch to producing critical supplies or just weathering the storm. 

These companies focused on identifying and implementing new kinds of technology, from messenger platforms like Slack to more traditional packaging-automation solutions, to stay connected and continue producing products. New technology was seen as critical to creating a new path forward, and the immediacy of need expanded what types of solutions manufacturers were willing to consider—explorations not achieved for small- and mid-sized manufacturers through the rhetoric surrounding Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things.

According to the World Economic Forum, small and mid-sized manufacturers are at greater risk of being left behind due to the growing digital divide. These businesses are critical to the global supply chain, making up 50-60% of global GDP and accounting for a majority of the workforce. Technology implementation offers unique opportunities that small- and mid-size manufacturers must leverage to bridge the digital divide.

Overall, manufacturers have been slow to adapt and adopt new technologies. While all are aware of potential cost savings and affordability of new smart technologies, challenges still exist with implementation in small and mid-sized manufacturing environments.

How can small and mid-sized businesses use these new technologies?

Working with small and mid-size manufacturing companies in Georgia, I have been able to identify challenges and opportunities for implementing smart technologies on the shop floor. One key challenge is that work tasks can vary widely for individual employees, and the responsibility for learning how to manipulate technologies falls on individual employees rather than an IT specialist who can dedicate time to learning (and training) best practices. Smart technologies need to be developed with an embedded educational component or (at minimum) an employee-educational plan.

Small and mid-size manufacturers lack large organizations’ complex bureaucratic layers that complicate decision-making and extend implementation timelines. This is a good thing. And integration with existing enterprise-IT solutions is far less complicated or nonexistent for some small manufacturers who still rely primarily on paper documentation. In these situations, overall implementation of smart technologies could propel companies past competitors who deal with piecemeal upgrades.

Smaller companies’ readiness levels for technology deployments are more flexible, allowing workers to participate and give feedback to shape design and use. Making changes and improvements can be faster, resulting in higher employee buy-in.

Several small Georgia companies have been successful at building new technologies into their business operations, such as Commercial Interiors Manufacturing in Jasper, currently implementing Google Glass on the shop floor. Startup companies Foundry 45 and Futurus focus specifically on helping companies develop and integrate tools like VR into their operations, addressing privacy, ownership and authorship issues by co-creating technologies with workers to best support and extend their abilities.

In Georgia, the COVID response from small and mid-sized manufacturers has illustrated the industry's ability to be flexible and adaptive in switching over to produce critical supplies—strengths inherent to the nature of small manufacturing. Pairing these traits with new kinds of smart technologies creates opportunities for small and mid-size manufacturers to be leaders in their fields.

By Alyssa Rumsey, senior project manager with the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, Georgia Department of Economic Development