The COVID-19 Pandemic, a human tragedy of the highest order, will likely give way to the most difficult global recession that any of us has experienced. The first phases of which began as governments over the world have been forced to do what would have been unimaginable less than 30 days ago: lockdown populations across our interconnected global economy.

The Only Certainty Is Uncertainty

empty warehouse due to covid

The combination of disrupted global supply chains and depressed consumer demand will bring difficult decisions to manufacturing business leaders. While there is no silver bullet cure for all scenarios, this article is written to stimulate thinking on how the industry can respond to these unprecedented challenges.

We begin by looking at the challenges of the current reality and discuss strategies for managing through the crisis. We then turn our attention to what the manufacturers may expect on the other side of the crisis and delve into possible opportunities that our new reality may bring with it.

Coping With the Current Reality and Recommendations

Presently, business leaders are working to cope with the current reality. Across the globe, they are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by asking workers to stay home and work remotely. While this is a viable option to many businesses, the situation is different for the manufacturing sector.  Depending on the industry and location of the plant, manufacturers can face different scenarios that can be broadly grouped into two camps.

Scenario 1 – Production running with restrictions

maintenance-manufacturing

First, are companies that are still producing but with restrictions.  For those manufactures that have continuity of supply and demand, such as those in CPG, the operation will still require a workforce to be physically present on the shop floor. In this case, manufacturers may face increased absenteeism due to illness or the need for workers to stay home with children or to care for a sick loved one.

Precautions and communication

chemist in warehouse because of covid

To minimize the risk of spreading infection in the plant, consider staggering shifts or allowing flexible hours to minimize contact between work cells and production lines. Make communication of good hygiene and social distancing on the line a priority. Employees who are sick will need to stay home. Utilize text messages and cell phones to minimize face to face interactions and meetings. Sanitize all incoming raw materials and all outbound shipments.

Remote work for production analysis

remote work with evocon

If your company has made investments in production monitoring and automation, there are likely many support functions that can and should be able to work remotely. For example, if you are able to monitor production in real-time and access line performance data via the cloud, then manufacturing supervisors and managers can use email, messaging apps, phones, and video conferencing tools to remotely manage the operation.

Investments into IIoT

If your company has not made these investments, this is a good opportunity to implement such technology. Not only will you enable remote work as described previously, but you may also be able to generate positive ROI in a relatively short amount of time (we will explore this idea further in the next section). Further, implementing these types of tools will prepare your organization for what may become a recurring cycle as the planet fights COVID-19 to 100% containment.

Scenario 2 – Plants partially or fully shut down

In our next group are those manufacturers that experience disrupted supply lines and depressed demand. For companies who find themselves in this group, plant closures like we are seeing by major automakers are inevitable. Once we come through the other side of the crisis, pent up demand and production backlogs will be welcomed problems for companies to work through. Other issues will be preparing operations for the possibility of future outbreaks of COVID-19.

Options available to manufacturers in this camp, while limited, may also include investing in IIoT and automation, such as that described above. Other options include using the downtime to review workflows and processes, implementing lean solutions through continuous improvement exercises such as kaizen or 3P, and developing your workforce through online education.

empty factory

Process Improvement

What processes or workflows does everyone in the plant know need serious attention but you haven’t had the time to study and improve? Does your Lean Manager have a list of project ideas?

Do you have value stream maps for the items with the highest volume of demand? If not, you could use this time to map out the current state and to define the future state.

If you have production routers (aka bill of operations) and a detailed plant layout, you could consider doing a remote 3P event to analyze material flow through the plant. Is the layout of your work cells, machining centers, etc. setup to minimize the distance that material and people must travel to complete your highest volume items? You could use teleconferencing to enable a remote team to look at these types of questions as this is the type of work that will create value for your facility once operations are resumed.

Workforce Development

What initiatives do you have in the pipeline that require training? What knowledge gaps does your workforce have that could improve value once the crisis subsides? 

With some factories shut down and their teams at home there may exist an opportunity to provide remote training in areas that will be beneficial to the organization once your plant comes back online.

Examples could include, lean and continuous improvement methodologies, such as Six Sigma DMAICs, SIPOCs, or Value Stream Mapping. Or, if you were to plan to implement OEE, for example, when your plant comes back online, now is a good time to educate your operators on the fundamentals of OEE and the six big losses in manufacturing.

Our New Reality Going Forward

Now let’s turn our attention to what manufacturers may expect on the other side of the crisis. Just what might our new reality look like and what opportunities may it bring?

To begin with, whether we like it or not, the way that operations and continuous improvement teams work will be changed. The winners will be those that adapt to our new reality and seek ways to utilize digital tools to enable new ways of working.

It should be expected that once the world comes back on-line and things stabilize, thinking about how we work is likely to be forever altered. The crisis is forcing businesses to adopt remote work on an unprecedented scale.

As the crisis subsides, managers and business leaders will have proof of concept for what we have already known: yes, many jobs can indeed work remotely without disrupting operations or reducing productivity. This presents an opportunity for manufacturers to invest in IIoT solutions to remotely monitor and manage production at factories.

Live Production Monitoring

One such IIoT opportunity is production monitoring and real-time OEE tracking.

real time production performance evocon

Manufacturers have been using OEE to improve production line performance since the 1980’s TPM movement. This is because improving OEE can significantly reduce cost through the elimination of unnecessary downtime and improve productivity by maximizing the utilisation of resources.

Of course, in light of social distancing measures, some companies could not be blamed for being sceptical about planning implementation of new technologies at this time. However, unlike on-premise systems, the implementation of most IIoT solutions (e.g. OEE software by Evocon) does not require an on-site visit by a vendor. You can do everything remotely, safeguarding the health of your employees.

If you are interested in learning more about evaluating the value of potential investments, like production monitoring and live OEE tracking, post COVID, you can check out this OEE software ROI calculator and the OEE calculator.

Wrapping Up

As we have already seen, the COVID-19 pandemic has created high levels of uncertainty for manufacturers and the world-at-large. That said, there are strategies and coping mechanisms that exist which can be beneficial as we navigate the ambiguity of the unknown.

We hope that our discussion of several of these strategies and insights into what the future may hold post-COVID can be useful as we all learn to live through these unprecedented and challenging times.

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