Manufacturing in the new normal: How automation is helping businesses adapt to the challenges of COVID-19

December 15, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way we live and work. Organisations of all kinds have had to abandon traditional processes and find new ways of working in order to remain operational – and many have turned to technology to make this possible.

Whether it is adopting new systems to enable working from home, shifting to online collaboration tools including Zoom, WebEx, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, or setting up ecommerce stores to continue operation – the onus has been on technology and connectivity to keep things moving.

One area where this has been particularly apparent, is in manufacturing, where continuing business as usual has particular challenges. Today, many organisations exploring integration and automation in order to remain productive.

In this article, Adem Kulauzovic, Director of Coding Automation at Domino, discusses why Industry 4.0 is more relevant than ever in the era of COVID-19 and highlights some of the ways that integrated systems, connected devices, and automated processes can be used to help ease production strain.

Staff safety first

To keep things running during the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses need to ensure that workers are looked after, and reducing worker stress and promoting good mental health has been a huge conversation topic in recent months.

With swathes of people across the world adjusting to new work environments, the onus has been on employers to ensure that their personnel are kept happy and healthy. The same is true of workers on the factory floor – where social distancing measures and new shift patterns require physical and mental adjustment.

Production line work can be stressful at the best of times, especially where workers are manually entering codes, or performing the same, small task over and over again. These tasks, though business-critical, can be some of the most mentally fatiguing of all production line tasks, and as such are also prone to operator error.

 

Automation and integration can take care of some of these routine, business-critical processes and eliminate key areas where errors in production may arise. Utilising Industry 4.0 in this way can also stand to benefit manufacturers coping with staff shortages due to sickness, quarantine, or self-isolation.

Automating routine tasks and simplifying processes also makes it easier for manufacturers to bring in new personnel and provide support when required. Simplicity makes continuing operations during this time a lot more manageable.

Accelerated manufacturing innovation

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the business drivers of Industry 4.0 were all focused on the competitive advantage that could be achieved through integration, automation, and big data – including reduced costs and increased productivity.

Today, the technology and the benefits are the same, but the focus is on adaptation.

Industry 4.0 is all about state-of-the-art technology, built-in sensors, and most importantly, connectivity – between machines, people, and places. Social distancing’s impact on the ability for workers to interact on the production floor means that connectivity can also be a powerful tool for manufacturers to keep production moving and ensure the continued safety of their staff.

By utilising Industry 4.0 processes, and automating systems to work with limited operator intervention, manufacturers can reduce the number of workers needed on the plant floor. Integrating plant machinery and utilising the cloud can provide visibility and operation remotely, allowing managers to work away from the line and yet stay on top of all production activity.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, 54% of new US production lines were being set up for automation, or to be controlled by programmable logic controllers. With the challenges presented by COVID-19, this is expected to increase. It has even been suggested that electronics manufacturing could witness five years’ worth of development in the next 18 months – all as a result of production challenges brought about by COVID-19.[i]

Enabling remote services

Around the world, those people who can work from home are being asked to. Within a manufacturing environment, utilising automation or the cloud presents an opportunity for the development of new, remote services.

For example, sharing manufacturing data on the cloud could allow a maintenance manager to work remotely to monitor machinery – only going onto the site when fully necessary to solve a problem. Such information can be used to monitor machine functionality, and perform predictive maintenance tasks, where necessary, to keep printers running, or to troubleshoot issues as they occur.

Equally, automating simple, system-critical processes, such as data entry, information distribution, and product changeovers can limit the number of manual workers required on a production line. Utilising solutions to monitor production from a central location – such as a single computer, or home office – can allow for workforce numbers to be reduced to only critical staff who need to be there to operate the machinery.

Debunking the automation myth

A common myth with Industry 4.0 and automation is that you are either in or you are out. However, there are small things that manufacturers can do – states of progression – which mean an organisation can reap benefits without a fully automated solution.

From a coding and marking perspective, these include small processes and concepts which either partially automate or make it easier for an operator to do their job while working on a production line with reduced staff numbers or a significantly increased workload.

Networking printers together using coding automation software, for example, can allow production line staff to populate product labels and manage their distribution across multiple printers. This small adjustment can allow staff to manage label distribution from a central location, thereby reducing the number of workers required to manage coding processes across a production line.

With the simple application of IoT methodology, this can be taken a step further to allow coding solutions to automatically populate label templates from a central database – eliminating the need for manual data entry on a production line.

By introducing these small processes, an organisation can eliminate a lot of complication and reduce the overall workload of staff on the line, without requiring full automation.

Prepare for the future

In the run-up to the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of Industry 4.0 was already gaining traction as a system of ideas and processes which manufacturers could utilise in the present day to remain competitive and make the most out of their manufacturing operations.

The necessity to continue production during a crisis, whilst under huge constraints, can enable organisations to easily identify those areas of a business, or a single production line, that require the most improvement, and implement small fixes to address these issues on a micro-level.

By identifying areas where bottlenecks arise – during product changeover, for example – and implementing automated fixes to streamline processes, a manufacturer can very quickly start to realise the benefits in automation.

By exploring options for coding automation today, manufacturers can not only overcome issues encountered on production lines arising due to the COVID-19 pandemic but can also place themselves in good stead to prepare for further crisis situations, should they arise in the future.

Conclusion

As we continue to navigate through these challenging times, there is no denying that it is no longer business as usual. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that in order to continue operation now, and in the future, we must all think about how to embrace new efficiencies, new technology, and new modes of business.

Those manufacturers who took steps to automate their production lines prior to the COVID-19 outbreak may have found it easier to adapt their processes in order continue production during the current pandemic. While others may have found themselves having to abandon traditional processes in order to keep their doors open and ensure the continued safety of their staff.

One thing is clear, wherever you are in your current journey there has never been a better time to embrace automation in order to protect your workforce, your business, and your commercial future.

[i] The Economist, “How to reopen factories after covid-19”, accessed 24th June 2020 www.economist.com/briefing/2020/04/07/how-to-reopen-factories-after-covid-19.

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