Covid-19 has prompted the automation industry to continuously provide remote services and support, says nonprofit organisation Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association (MESA) Africa vice chairperson Gerhard Greeff.
The option of working remotely has always been acknowledged; however, this has become a “complete dependency” and is no longer “just an option”.
“Even when things ‘return to normal’, remote working is here to stay. It has shown that it can work in times of need, and companies will automate their systems even more so to encourage this option,” he says.
The reduction in travelling costs and the time saved to have a business meeting have been an unforeseen bonus, he highlights.
In addition, companies are now using virtual and augmented reality, video and video conferencing technologies to start and continue with automation projects.
Covid-19 has fundamentally changed the view that people and organisations have of collaborative information technology solutions, such as unified communication and collaboration platform Microsoft Teams, telecommunications application Skype and communications technology company Zoom, adds Greeff.
Owing to these platforms having been available for some time, they have been regarded as second best after face-to-face meetings.
However, companies are now forced to use these platforms to continue with business, and most people have only now started to realise the power of these technologies, he notes.
Greeff believes that the pandemic is going to have some long-term effects on the way companies conduct their business.
“Companies are going to ask questions such as: ‘Do we really need office space for 6 000 people, and to provide electricity, network infrastructure, furniture, coffee, tea and sugar for them? Can we let them work from home, pay them for a fibre connection and only provide one floor of offices and conference rooms for those unavoidable face-to-face meetings?”
Amid these possibilities, MESA Africa has launched webcasts and virtual round tables to share knowledge, ideas and practical actions to assist companies with their operations during this time, adds Greeff.
Moreover, MESA Africa exco member Alberto Pontiggia highlights that Covid-19 resulted in business coming forward to collaborate with government and society to save lives – for example,manufacturing lines were reconfigured to produce ventilators and a variety of medical supplies, regardless of profit and effort.
Business and government also collaborated to introduce financial relief. Business also started to find collaborative solutions without the need for the usual ‘negotiated standoffs’ that characterise the relationship.
“It seemed as if a benevolent form of capitalism was spontaneously introduced into the midst of the crisis. Perhaps a new way of thinking could be to invest in the wellbeing of workers who are made redundant by increased plant automation,” he says.
Pontiggia adds that the automation of plants will naturally add efficiencies, predictability and reliability that will, in turn, translate into profitability if all is managed well. These profits can be creatively redistributed and used to reinvest in the growth of human capital to create new jobs.
He mentions that manufacturing intelligence information systems would be a cost- efficient option, as this would empower all stakeholders with real-time information and allow for collaborative and remote decision-making.
Larger and more complex manufacturing enterprises could also implement real-time centralised information platforms across multiple plants.
“This will lead to advantages, such as remote monitoring and diagnostic centres monitoring plants over large geographical scales.”
Pontiggia further mentions that some companies, whose technicians were not able to go to remote sites during the pandemic, have had to quickly introduce virtual and augmented reality technology to remotely assist operators with field repairs and training regarding their plant equipment.
Smart Factories and Industry 4.0
As a result of an increased interest in Industry 4.0, smart factories and Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) companies are developing digitalisation strategies fitting into their broader strategy.
More progressive companies have launched global projects to roll out manufacturing operations management solutions to plant fleets, Greeff explains.
“The big reason for this was to standardise operational processes and key performance indicators across the organisation at a plant level to increase predictability, align key performance indicators reporting and allow for easier integration into enterprise resources planning (ERP) systems,” he says.
Greeff highlights that some of the companies have moved from multiple-instance ERP solutions to a single-instance ERP; consequently, companies needed a standardised Manufacturing Operations Management solution.
Several companies have not changed anything at the process automation level, where the expectation is for such a solution to take care of technology and naming convention variations at plant level.
Automation platforms are becoming more open to allow for the inclusion of non- traditional instrumentation using other communication protocols such as those used for IoT.
This will allow for better integration between plant automation and the surrounding utilities, services and the wider supply chain, Greeff concludes.