Manufacturers were forced to adapt during Covid-19, and many changes they made are here to stay because they are fundamentally better business practices going forward.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought about dramatic change to the nature of everyday work, as those fortunate enough to be deemed essential, like our manufacturing customers, had to adapt operations in several ways.
At Datanomix, we took every precaution and transitioned our team to work from home seamlessly while continuing to provide critical remote support functions. For our customers, the changes were much more physically imposing, since manufacturing equipment can’t quite be run from the comforts of one’s couch.
All factories now have safety measures in place around distancing, visitors, the number of people in buildings and meetings, and general sanitization/cleaning practices, and as time progresses, these changes will obviously unwind at some point. There are other adaptations made by industrial manufacturers, however, that we believe are going to stick for good, as they are fundamentally better business practices that are needed for essential businesses to remain essential to their customers going forward.
Here are a few adaptations we have observed at several customers of ours that we think make a great template for manufacturers in the post Covid-19 world.
Flexible Work Schedules
Nearly every shop we work with had the idea of a modified work schedule in their future plans, and the impact of Covid-19 accelerated those plans into practice. We have seen a variety of interesting models here: the 9/80, the 4x4, and split-shifts to name a few. What we see employers doing is trying to establish schedules that reduce the complexity of the everyday manufacturing grind, such as number of setups/warm-ups/unplanned maintenance incidents, and give employees increased flexibility in exchange for more continuous run-time.
There are both tangible and intangible benefits to these new flexible schedules. Shops are seeing parts getting produced earlier in the day and for more hours during the day, employees that are more engaged in making sure goals are hit because they're looking forward to more structured personal and family time, and a shared ownership about making the new scheduling approach work because everyone is benefiting from it.
More Hands-Free Production
Whether it's overnight/unattended operation, sophisticated gantry style machines with pre-loaded setups, or robots to load/unload machines, there is a clear movement towards being more productive in a hands-free manner. To be making money while you're asleep is the dream of any business owner, but making more money when you're awake is pretty nice, too. We heard from several shops who were thinking about trying unattended operation this year, and because of the Covid-19 situation said "what the heck, let's give it a shot". There are definitely challenges in doing this, but in light of the pandemic, the incentives were pretty high because it meant a more balanced work day for operators, and keeping critical jobs running while the risk of changes in business demand were high.
As things continue to open up, these optimizations are actually an investment for the business because resources that used to be dedicated to those processes are free to take on new and challenging jobs, train on other types of equipment, do more in-process inspections, and ultimately be a resource for net-new business opportunities. The flexible scheduling combined with modern processes actually creates a more adaptable business capable of winning more and different types of customers.
Finally, Going Digital
The Wall Street Journal covered the digital shift happening on factory floors in a recent post "Pandemic to Jumpstart Spending on Data Tools at Manufacturers”, and discussed how being able to monitor production remotely during the pandemic has made the case for even greater data capabilities.
Many Operations leaders we spoke with shifted to at least a partial work-from-home schedule. Without the ability to "walk the floor", getting answers about production, quotes, drawings, and the engineering challenges of the day required technology. Some of this is about communication technology - getting in touch with key resources that were still on the floor, doing GEMBA walks production meetings, and troubleshooting via video conference. And some of this is about production data technology - having answers about live business performance at your fingertips without needing to sift through paper, people, or parts to figure out whether today is a good day or bad day.
Regardless of where they are working, and regardless of what's running in the shop, Operations leaders need to always know the score on the production floor so they can focus their valuable people and limited time on the best productivity opportunities. Real-time production information coming straight from your machines is one of the simplest and most cost-effective ways to reduce burden on your operators, supervisors and engineers while also rallying everyone around the idea of what it means to make today a great production day.
We've seen a nice uptick in demo and quote requests for our Fusion platform as more and more shops re-open, and the reason is simple: manufacturers understand now more than ever that waiting for end-of-day or end-of-week answers does not allow them to operate with the urgency required of an essential business.
This pandemic forced several digital transformation measures upon the manufacturing industry, but the path forward is very clear- digital communication and production intelligence tools combined with flexible work schedules and hands-free processes are the hallmarks of an essential, modern manufacturing business. If you are looking to bring any of these adaptations into your shop, we’d love to help.