The world is rapidly changing, with the onslaught of Covid-19 catalysing and concentrating the drivers behind this change. Consequently, manufacturers need to be agile in adapting their systems and processes, remain lean and use digital enablers in a digital transformation to remain relevant and competitive.
Industrial automation and information technology company Rockwell Automation UK and Ireland chief technology officer Mike Loughran, and professional services firm Ernst & Young partner and product life-cycle management global leader Adrian Reisch shared these sentiments during a live webcast hosted last month.
Loughran pointed out that agile and adaptable manufacturing was enabled by smart, connected machines and lines, that connected plants provided safer and more secure machine connectivity and that a connected and skilled workforce was faster and more innovative.
Reisch explained that the world was becoming increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – a confluence of driving factors which he combined into an acronym dubbed the “Vuca” world.
Advances in technology have democratised data and empower consumers to create entirely new industries, with the next wave of technological advances being driven by the Internet of Things, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and robotics.
Increased globalisation continues to lead to the creation of new competitors, reordering of supply chains and lowering of price points. Reisch added that the next wave of globalisation would serve to increase complexity and deepen the need for flexible business models.
Changing demographics also adds to complexity. Reisch noted that, in decades ahead, relatively high birth rates would make Africa and India engines of economic opportunity, while ageing populations elsewhere would transform all aspects of society, from healthcare to real estate.
“Millennial-dominated workforces will reinvent the workplace, which is already occurring as companies find ways to work from home during the lockdown.”
Resource scarcity is another driver to consider, as climate change and sustainability continue to define the agendas of governments and organisations globally. Social responsibility also emerged as a key differentiator for how innovative organisations operate and create value, he added.
Loughran noted that manufacturers that had started on their digital transformation journey, having adopted the Vuca worldview, were in a much better position to adapt to the challenges of technology advancements, increased globalisation, changing demographics and resources scarcity – especially as these factors were amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Reisch said that the challenges of a Vuca world were pushing manufacturers to become more project-driven, as opposed to product-driven, to remain competitive.
“A mindset change is key. The human factor in the company must be on board with and support the change of becoming a project-driven company,” he emphasised.
Reisch cited a company that shifted from manufacturing underwear to manufacturing cloth masks for the Covid-19 pandemic and a company that manufactured automotive parts before shifting to manufacturing respirators to support the demand arising from the crisis, as examples.
Loughran said that it was a common misconception that manufacturers had to fully upgrade their machinery and facilities to become digitalised and, thereby, become more lean and agile.
He declared that there was absolutely no doubt that manufacturers could enjoy the benefits of digitalisation with the machinery, the plant and the people already in place.
Such transformation was not a function of “rip and replace”, but rather depended on how one scales and extends existing assets, people, processes and technology, he added.
Agile manufacturing is defined by seamless operation, and characterised by self-configuring machines, predictive operation with self-correction and digital capabilities. These characteristics can be achieved incrementally with every successive upgrade to existing resources.
Traditionally, the development of the manufacturing process followed on sequentially from product development. However, Loughran and Reisch advocated for the integration of product development and manufacturing process development to enhance agility, leanness and, thereby, competitiveness.
Moreover, digitalisation leads to connected plants and connected supply chains, which Loughran said provided immediate benefits of reliability, stability, immediacy and agility.
To ensure that any of this is possible, Loughran concluded that it was important to ensure that the workforce was adequately connected, enabled and motivated. This includes securing remote connectivity, the capturing of skills sets and encouraging innovation.