Manufacturing employee with screens overlaid in glass

The Future of Manufacturing in America: What has changed because of COVID?

Posted September 3rd, 2020

In the beginning of 2020, the future of manufacturing looked bright. The 4th Industrial Revolution brought innovations that would make manufacturing leaner, smarter, and more transparent. Digital transformation promised more jobs, and the biggest dilemma faced was a widening skills gap and subsequent shortage of talent.

Then, coronavirus quickly swept across the globe and industries were forced to respond. Supply chains broke, inventory sat unclaimed in ports, and manufacturing plants across the U.S. had to close their doors—some temporarily, and some for good.

For some, the future altered irrevocably. But for many, the future we once had is not only still possible, but inevitable, and now closer than we thought.

There is no doubt that the manufacturing industry in North America is determined to survive and move forward. Working through a major crisis reveals gaps & weaknesses in operational processes that may have otherwise been brushed aside and saved in the “parking lot”. It seems impossible to make meaningful change when your company is in survival mode, but manufacturers that noted and acted on lessons from the pandemic are more prepared than ever as they become more agile, sustainable, and adaptable.

Manufacturers that are helping the industry rebuild have made a mindset shift, operational changes, and an investment in technological solutions. Their priorities may have shifted, but they have been required to make decisions that are accelerating them into their future even sooner than planned.

Prioritizing Safety Spotlights Efficiencies

Manufacturers were hit hard during the initial wave of coronavirus. As the adage goes, “You can’t build jets from home.” A report from Industry Week found that 40-50% of the manufacturing workforce was unable to perform on-site work. Now that the workforce is starting to return in many places, a new view of safety has become a prominent concern.

Putting employees’ safety first has always been a priority, but the pandemic brought forth challenges never considered. Provisioned with the recognition of a new risk capable of shutting down a facility entirely, having a protected workforce is even more important in maintaining morale and productivity.

Employee safety starts with new standard protocols such as temperature checks, wearing PPE, and hand-sanitizing stations. These are all low-effort and low-disruption tactics that support and protect your workforce. Other changes we’re seeing include operational shifts that can be leveraged as opportunities for improvement.

  • Refining shift hand-off meetings to focus only on critical and improvements and efficiencies
  • Town Hall meetings are conducted as recorded Zoom events—opening communication lines, creating cohesive cultures, and building confidence safely
  • Creating new shifts (nights, weekends) and spreading out workforce is allowing greater flexibility for employees and also potential production opportunities
  • Cross-training and mentorships are promoting a transfer of knowledge, improving employee retention, disaster preparedness, schedule flexibility, and overall productivity

A Refined Collaboration of People & Automation

With safety a more prominent concern in general, many manufacturers are turning to automated solutions sooner than they planned. The shift toward automation has proven to be smart financially and is a necessary evolution in the industry, but it has not eliminated the need for a human workforce.

In fact, automation supports manufacturing workforces. Automation programs help keep production moving during potential shutdowns or staff limitations, and makes social distancing on the floor easier as facilities fully re-open. Automation creates operational efficiencies, reduces workplace injuries, and attracts a new, younger pool of talent.

Traditional manufacturing has an aging workforce, and many chose retirement during the initial wave of the coronavirus. However, there is a shift in perception happening with baby-boomers retiring and newer leadership pushing smart factories and automation. The perception of manufacturing as a dead-end, low-paying, and dangerous job will fade as state-of-the-art technology and cutting-edge processes become the new normal. Roles such as Predictive Supply Network Analyst or Robot Teaming Coordinator are putting an emphasis on digital and soft skills and bridging the gap between robotics solutions and human workforce.

During March and April of 2020, 1.4M manufacturing jobs were lost. That is a lot of skilled workers looking for new opportunities.

“The pandemic has left tens of thousands of incredibly talented individuals searching for new opportunities. What we’re seeing now is that successful industrial organizations are taking advantage of this to not only scoop up the best of the best, but transition their entire business, and even their leadership, into a smarter, more innovative and nimble direction.” Brian Fowler, CEO of Skye Recruitment Solutions says.

“Where we once saw a candidates’ market and a gap in available talent, we’re now seeing larger pools of candidates competing for opportunities. But this means it’s even more important to be specific and strategic in hiring people that align with a more forward-thinking future that aligns with the new business goals.”

Investment in Value & Reliability Creating Predictable Success

Robotics, automation and big data give the power to make smarter, more informed decisions about growing but, they also all require an initial financial investment. As does hiring new employees and investing in training programs.

Successful manufacturers are not afraid of making smart investments, but they are ensuring the expenses are being used strategically to ramp up output and efficiency. The coronavirus response shut some manufacturing companies down for good, which ultimately means there is more market opportunity than ever for the survivors.

“The COVID pandemic has caused a lot of problems as we all well know,” says Mobilization Funding CEO Scott Peper. “The truth is, for those businesses that made it there is less competition for you now than before. There will be manufacturing businesses that look back on COVID-19 as one of the best things that ever happened to their business, and there most certainly will be ones that think it was the worst. I suggest you make the decisions to ensure you are on the right side of those two groups.”

Smart financial decisions are being made that support long-term growth through selective equipment investments. For example, if a company has experienced a surge of orders and is patching up old, less reliable machinery just to keep up with demand, now is the time to consider investing in either reliable workers to handle maintenance and troubleshooting or newer, more reliable equipment. Every hour that a machine is functioning properly is an hour of regained productivity.

Additional investment is being made in machine health monitoring and predictive maintenance techniques. Machines are working as much as possible for as long as possible utilizing data. When a plant monitors itself, output improves due to fewer shutdowns, and less extensive repairs are necessary should a shutdown occur.

Creating a Post-COVID Business Plan

The world has been changed forever by the coronavirus. It has touched every person, every nation, and every industry. Manufacturing is no exception, but it is exceptional. Manufacturing will survive the coronavirus, and many manufacturers are emerging leaner, stronger, and hungrier than ever.

It can be hard to see opportunity in a crisis, but it is important that business leaders outline a revived map of their company’s path through the next six months, and the next year after that. Now is the time to dust off the business plan and re-imagine it through the lens of the post-COVID world. How will goals change? Will they change at all, or will there be new tactics and opportunities to get there?

“Coronavirus has caused some uncertainty and challenged everyone, especially leaders and business owners,” says Peper. “If you are uncomfortable — good, you should be. Embrace it. Most great things come from first being very uncomfortable. Accept the challenge, make some new decisions, and drive hard at your new goals.”

Manufacturing is ready to continue its journey into the 4th Industrial Revolution. Now more than ever, not despite the pandemic but in many ways because of it. Things may look different now, but the future of manufacturing still looks the same: filled with potential.

This article was produced in partnership with Skye Solutions

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