In the summer of 2020, InfinityQS conducted a Global Client Survey with the goal of understanding the current challenges, initiatives, and overall outlook of our manufacturing clients, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. These are manufacturers from around the world that produce goods for a wide range of industries—from food & beverage and automotive, to pharmaceuticals and electronics.
What we found were “green shoots” of recovery and signs of positive upturn, with nearly 74% of respondents reporting that they are optimistic toward the future.
The road to recovery
I found the results enlightening because, for several months, manufacturing has been a sector fraught with challenges due to COVID-19. There was volatility in demand, where some industries like automotive saw demand taper off due to economic uncertainty and consumers exhibiting conservative spending habits. Meanwhile, others like food and beverage saw demand skyrocket as people stockpiled supplies in preparation for an indefinite lockdown.
Amid all this volatility, there were plants shutting down as a precaution or in response to employees testing positive for COVID-19. Those who stayed open tried to make do with a limited number of staff on the plant floor, and shifting other team members, such as plant managers and quality managers, to remote work—many for the first time in their careers.
While such efforts were focused on surviving the pandemic, the world is now collectively looking ahead as restrictions gradually ease (in some cases) and we begin to define the “new normal.” Manufacturers, too, are proactively thinking about ways to not just survive but thrive in a new post-COVID-19 reality. The findings from our survey—and latest business activities—illustrate some of the investments that our clients are making to adapt their operations and transform quality management for a better tomorrow.
A wake-up call for digital transformation
One key observation from our work with clients was an acceleration in digital-transformation initiatives and the growing adoption of cloud-based solutions. This marks a significant change in attitude toward digital transformation, which for many years remained low on company agendas as a far-off consideration rather than an immediate priority. Instead, many clung to legacy processes, such as manually collecting quality data in spreadsheets or even by paper and pencil.
However, dependency on manual processes—and the resulting inability to access and act on collected data—was one of the reasons why manufacturers struggled to pivot their operations and mitigate disruptions at the pandemic’s onset. In experiencing these challenges, organizations had a sharp wake-up call to the need for real-time data accessibility and response—foundational elements of an agile smart factory. Investments in cloud-based, data-driven solutions have thus shot to the top of agendas. These manufacturers want to leverage real-time data to make proactive decisions to maximize performance, respond to fluctuations in demand, ensure flexible operations, and even build resilience for future “black-swan” events—all while maintaining high levels of product quality and safety. Further, they want anytime, anywhere, secure access to plant-floor information so they can make intelligent decisions remotely.
Empowering remote collaboration
Notably, among the respondents in our Global Client Survey, 75% reported more of their personnel are now working remotely. Prior to the pandemic, this would seem inconceivable, as manufacturing operations have largely required personnel to be physically present on site, near the production lines. But again, COVID-19 has upended previous ways of working, forcing manufacturers to rethink how to maintain output and quality standards when faced with a reduced on-site workforce and remote teams. The cloud and supporting tools for process monitoring, real-time alerts, analytics, and reporting have stood out as ideal solutions to enable effective collaboration between those on the plant floor and those working remotely.
Our clients are investing in not only the technologies for this remote collaboration, but also the talent. Even among the plants that temporarily shut down during the peaks of the pandemic, we find leaders and personnel aren’t sitting idly by. Instead, they’re using the downtime productively to configure new solutions to adapt and gear employees up for reopening.
Perhaps the most telling result is this: in June we saw a 316% increase in professional services hours—compared to March when the outbreak occurred—with new clients seeking support to rapidly roll out cloud-based solutions and bring production back up to pre-pandemic levels. It’s a clear sign that manufacturers are breaking away from the status quo, which can explain their positive outlook. These current investments are not only short-term fixes to navigate the situation at hand, but also tactical steps for long-term transformations that promise flexibility to support distributed teams and optimal performance no matter what the future brings.
Jason Chester is director of global channel partner programs with InfinityQS International, Inc.