Obstruction or Opportunity?


Industry 4.0 in the times of COVID-19: Now and Beyond

The world is gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Global Supply Chain is experiencing a level of disruption that has never been seen before and continuing to feel the reverberating effect of the COVID-19 epidemic. The after-effects of this upheaval will also be continued to be felt for months, perhaps years to come. Some manufacturers have ceased production completely, some have seen greatly reduced demand and others have seen a huge increase in demand. Every manufacturer is impacted by this crisis in some way and for many, these pose an existential threat. Factories and logistics providers are seeking to resume operations, but continue to face labor shortages, transportation delays, and regulatory uncertainty.

Prior to the crisis, Industry 4.0 was an exciting topic with huge potential benefits and was widely regarded as a ‘positive’ and future-thinking topic. However, at this point, it seems inappropriate to discuss Industry 4.0 in the way it was discussed pre-crisis. The business driver of Industry 4.0 pre-crisis was to make well run businesses run better. Whereas the focus for many manufacturers now is survival first and beyond that, damage limitation.

In that view, is Industry 4.0 even a relevant topic that manufacturers should be thinking about?

Industry 4.0 is not only as relevant as it was before, but it is actually far more relevant moving forward.

Most current system architectures currently consist of a mix of applications and data silos that results in a latency of information and the lack of a single Real-Time view of the business status. No sooner was this architecture tested beyond its normal operating conditions that it failed, and this is why it is not fit for purpose. From the events unfolding before us, one of the major takeaways is a lack of real-time visibility across the business that is essential to support critical business decisions. During the crisis, production plans will change on a much higher frequency as a result of changing demands and availability of raw materials, key staff, and assets. Manufacturing has a much higher volume and frequency of ‘transaction’ than the supply chain.

Manufacturing is real-time, not near real-time.

Here’s how in the current scenario and also going forward industry 4.0 will be instrumental in better aligning ourselves to the changing world scenarios.

Implementation of Industry 4.0 ensures real-time visibility into the availability of raw materials, finished goods, WIP, people, and assets. Use of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to constantly reassess and re-plan activities based on the changing scenario. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) helps to support non-value added but labor-intensive activities. The use of Mobile Technology and Augmented / Virtual Reality to enable workers to perform tasks they were not trained for more easily. This could have assisted with skills shortages due to self-isolation or repurposing of manufacturing. The same technologies together with Digital Twin, Cloud and Remote Support from OEM’s would improve the availability of assets. It could also have enabled more remote and virtual working to help with the issue of lockdown and social distancing. The list of benefits that are being derived or can be derived from the implementation of industry 4.0 is endless.

Many of these technologies and solutions were seen as futuristic and nice to have. Many were waiting to watch until these come into mainstream adoption. Those that had taken the plunge into industry 4.0 are reaping its benefits instead of struggling during this moment of crisis. For those who haven’t, we should be thinking about how they can be deployed now to help deal with the crisis. Beyond that, how can they be used to help us recover more quickly and develop more resilient and robust businesses that are better equipped to deal with this level of disruption in the future?

Beyond everything, there will be one other critical factor in navigating our way out of this that will be the key to successful digital transformation. No, it’s not technology. Technology is obvious.

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