Over the last decade, manufacturers have heavily invested in technology to automate physical aspects of production for greater efficiency and lower costs. Less emphasis, however, has been on the digital side of things. You could walk the production floor in even the most heavily automated plant and still see operators using pencil and paper for data collection and using spreadsheets for reporting and analysis.
This slow adoption is largely due to commonly held perceptions of digital transformation. Large manufacturing organizations have positioned enterprise-wide digital transformation on their agenda as a long-term visionary project—one put on the back burner in favor of current priorities and pressing issues. Small companies, on the other hand, have typically viewed the shift to digital as a massive initiative that they just don’t have the time, budget or resources to tackle.
But that’s all changing in the wake of COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, manufacturers of every size and in every industry faced serious operational challenges that highlighted significant weaknesses in their existing manufacturing environments.
Many organizations, for instance, found the lack of real-time data prevented timely response to disruptions such as supply shortages and demand spikes. And some that did have the means to leverage data still faced challenges. Namely, plant and quality managers were unable to access critical quality and process data while working remotely, thanks to outdated on-premises systems. On top of all that, productivity issues were common on the plant floor. Many on-site teams were significantly reduced in number to enable social distancing, yet they had to shoulder more responsibilities to cover for absences.
Now manufacturers have weathered the worst of it and are on the road to recovery. A rising number are looking to leverage digital technologies to optimize their operations and build greater resilience for the future.
Our team at InfinityQS recently conducted a survey of our manufacturing clients and found that more than half have their sights set on digital transformation in response to COVID-19. Some 52% said they are currently exploring or already adopting digital technologies to enhance operational performance.
What technologies topped their wish lists?
- Advanced analytics
- The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)
- Cloud computing
This comes as no surprise. Together, these technologies support anytime, anywhere access to real-time data that holds valuable insights into every stage of production. Manufacturers can leverage these insights to make more informed, rapid decisions in the face of disruption, as well as pinpoint ways to continuously improve processes and ultimately secure long-term resilience.
Moreover, cloud-based SaaS solutions are making it easier than ever for manufacturers to take simple, “bite-sized” steps toward digital transformation. Such solutions offer rapid deployment and user-friendly interfaces for fast adoption among personnel. They’re also flexible and scalable enough for tactical, phased implementations—shifting digital transformation from an all-or-nothing, out-of-reach initiative to a much more tangible, achievable goal for companies of any size.
Going back to our survey results, I believe that if we had asked those very same clients the very same questions before the pandemic, the percentage in pursuit of digital transformation would have been significantly lower. Manufacturers have gotten a harsh wakeup call that any risk—from natural disasters to political upheavals like Brexit, to the likes of a global pandemic—can bring production grinding to a halt. But by modernizing their manufacturing environments via tactical digital transformation, they can keep churning out great, high-quality products no matter what risks come to pass.
Jason Chester is director of global channel programs with InfinityQS International, Inc.