The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted a problem that the manufacturing industry was already uncomfortably aware of – its traditional ecosystems are too cumbersome to cope with the variety of choice demanded by modern consumer behaviour. Put another way, while the pandemic did not start the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), it has acted as a powerful catalyst on trends that were already bubbling beneath the surface.
Actually it wasn’t the disease itself, but rather the effects of lockdown and the ensuing ‘isolation economy’, which accelerated the trend towards online purchasing and service delivery platforms. Nothing surprising about this yet: for the first time in history, human beings had available the technology to implement quarantine on a global scale and they simply applied it.
The surprise comes when one considers what happens when a critical mass of consumers decide that this is their preferred new way of doing things – pandemic or no pandemic. If enough people settle on this chosen modus operandi, then the effects are likely to become embedded in our lives as a ‘new normal’ that remains with us for many years to come.
So what effects will this have on manufacturing?
In the early stages, some manufacturers struggled to keep up with demand as a time of panic buying set in, while others experienced a dramatic fall in orders – the oil and gas industry, for example.
But it’s in the medium to long term where the ideas of 4IR are likely to have their most profound impact. For instance, online purchasing brings with it the freedom to offer the consumer a wider variety of choices than that associated with in-store shopping. The added pressure on manufacturers comes about as a result of the consumer demand for options in product features such as colour, finish and various other personal preferences. The net effect forces manufacturers away from the surety of mass production into a situation where they require many more degrees of freedom in their production techniques, as they attempt to produce smaller and smaller batch sizes with faster and faster turnaround times.
To compound the problem, social distancing requirements mean manufacturers must reduce the number of workers on site, just when they need them the most. As they get to grips with the problem, we are likely to see a rapid uptick in the adoption of remote diagnostic and collaboration tools in an effort to connect off-site teams of support specialists with the remaining on-site production workers.
The trick for manufacturers then is to understand the real meaning of ‘adding value’ in the context of an environment where disruption is the norm and customers have become more demanding than ever before. The pandemic has simply brought into sharp focus something we already knew – we are entering an era where the business problems faced by manufacturers extend way beyond traditional process control. The way forward is intertwined with the digital tools and technologies of the 4IR, but it is different for every organisation. Contributing editor, Gavin Halse, provides some useful adoption guidelines in the article to view click here http://www.instrumentation.co.za/11827r.
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