As COVID-19 spread from China to Europe to the United States, manufacturers were put to the test. After years of eliminating inefficiencies to achieve low-cost, just-in-time manufacturing, companies of all types were largely unprepared for the
myriad and global-scale disruptions of the pandemic. At least at the onset, modern manufacturing practices proved ill-equipped to weather a worldwide economic meltdown.
Productivity fell as many factories curtailed operations in response to government directives. And both upstream material and finished product shipments were interrupted amid confusion in the transportation sector. And as if the pandemic- related
challenges were not enough, ongoing trade tensions and uncertainty arising from U.S. and other governments’ policies regarding all manner of “normal” interactions posed further business complications.
About a half-year into the COVID-19 era, what have we learned? One area of special note is the need to rethink supply chain security. Specifically, two attributes are in need of analysis: robustness and resilience. By addressing both robustness
(the ability to maintain essential shipments, even during disruptive events) and resilience (the ability to return to normal or reconfigure quickly after a disruptive event), manufacturers can improve their overall business reliability (the
ability to deliver finished goods on time consistently).
These are not new concepts, and many companies regularly reviewed their processes with these sorts of criteria in mind, even if by different names. However, given the widespread shutdowns and resulting economic disruption, we can conclude most
of us did not anticipate scenarios where entire regions are unable to ship products, sometimes for months.
Another area, related to but not wholly dependent on a given supply chain structure, is in industrial automation. These systems can improve manufacturing processes by reducing production errors and more. For instance, with the proliferation of
connected systems (Industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, etc.), factories can gather and process information efficiently and conduct analysis apace from these data. In turn, plant managers can optimize operations
in response to supply chain disruptions. Combining on-site data with upstream and downstream information digitally is one way to add robustness and resilience to a company’s overall stream of commerce.
Increasingly, this end-to-end data chain will rely on machine learning and artificial intelligence both for detecting anomalies in manufacturing and for alerting managers to potential supply chain vulnerabilities or likely disruptions.
A pandemic may not seem like the optimum time to make major decisions. But most observers believe the “next normal” is emerging in ways that suggest applying much of the foregoing will separate the successful companies from the stragglers.
And while some investment will be required, most will initially rely on incrementally embedding sensors and connecting existing equipment digitally.
For its part, NEMA has secured the Technical Advisor and Secretary positions, respectively, for the U.S. Technical Advisory Group (TAG) and the International Electrotechnical Commission Smart Manufacturing Systems Committee (IEC SyC SM). By taking
on these important roles, NEMA will have a clear view of, and influence on, relevant Standards that over time will incorporate the economic and business lessons learned during the pandemic, and map a future that evolves largely from rethinking
how to connect existing systems digitally.
While COVID-19 took the world by surprise, humans are resilient, and business leaders are problem solvers. The post-COVID world is being fashioned by the numerous decisions being made today and for all the todays that follow. Aligning upstream
production and downstream processes and connecting them will empower rapid decision-making and contribute to overall company reliability. ei
Kevin J. Cosgriff
NEMA President and CEO