The COVID-19 pandemic has not only put a temporary halt to the global economy, but it has forced businesses, of all sizes to look at their structures, patterns and connections and realise just how resilient, or not, their organisations are. Nowhere is this more acute than in manufacturing in the factory world.

Like many industries, manufacturing is having to reassess how it operates. Only last month, Alok Sharma, Secretary of State for business, energy and industrial strategy reinforced, in an open letter, that there was ‘no restriction on manufacturing continuing’. However, businesses and those on the front line took an altogether different view. Both Jaguar, Land Rover and Nissan, operators of two of the UK’s flagship manufacturing facilities, both halted production with many others following suit.

“While the economic cogs are beginning to turn once more, albeit slowly, factory owners and operators are wrestling with several questions that are not easily answered when it comes to returning to work,” Aman Gupta, co-founder, ThingTrax, says.

Continuing to manufacture in a crisis

According to a survey by the British Plastic Federation, more than 50 per cent of plastic manufacturers stated that the coronavirus had impacted their staff’s ability to work – how can they maintain production when their staff have to observe social distancing? Are customers even receiving manufactured goods into their own warehouses and distribution centres? Can manufacturers stop production, irrespective of whether customers are ordering?

According to Make UK, the answer to the last question appears to be no. While reporting recently that UK manufacturing exports fell to their lowest level in three years, its 4th May Manufacturing Monitor reported that 86.5 per cent of UK manufacturers have continued to trade during the crisis. “While this may seem like a reason to be upbeat, the Monitor suggests that actually it could indicate that firms in this sector are less able to halt production during a crisis,” Gupta continues “As a result, many manufacturers have reported significant falls in sales and orders indicating poor current and future trading expectations. Consequently, cash-flow problems will continue to exacerbate over time.

“This highlights how many factories currently lack the agility to either switch off production completely, thereby saving cash as orders drop, or pivot to new practices if a shutdown is not possible. On top of that, many producers often have supply chains focused on a limited number of sourcing locations. In more extreme cases, this could lead to issues where production cannot stop, but materials cannot be sourced.”

Adapt and decentralise your manufacturing

One solution is taking a decentralised manufacturing approach, incorporating multiple plants in a variety of locations, rather than having a limited number of factories clustered in one or two geographies. “Rather than concentrate efforts in one plant, businesses operating a decentralised approach can limit their exposure to a complete shutdown by using different locations to continue operating, while still adhering to government guidance. In short, spreading the risk,” Gupta adds. “However, decentralised manufacturing brings its own challenges.

“One of the key facets of centralised manufacturing is that decision-making power is often consolidated, with senior management overseeing critical decisions. Decentralised manufacturing, in comparison, will often distribute decision-making power across locations and teams. To be effective and coordinated, manufacturers need to be able to make decisions quickly, potentially across numerous time zones. To do that, they need a complete overview of activity, powered by accurate, real-time data.”

Data capture key component for manufacturers

If they do not have that visualisation, manufacturers run the risk of an expensive, uncoordinated network of plants, undermining the benefits of taking a decentralised approach. “The ability to scale up and down, adjust outputs and react quickly to challenges which could disrupt production are all incumbent on having that accurate view, a single version of the truth that can be accessed from anywhere in the world,” Gupta explains. “To do that, factories must become more connected, or smarter.

“Manufacturers need to be able to combine machine monitoring hardware and software to digitise their existing facilities, bringing the theory of Industry 4.0 into reality. It is the only way they can quickly capture the data they need to build that visualisation of their operations, without completely ripping out their plants and starting again.”

This requires the combination of two technologies – Internet of Things (IoT), and artificial intelligence (AI). The former comes in sensors, easily attached to machinery, that capture output and productivity data and send it to a digital manufacturing platform. This uses AI to read and analyse that data, giving plant and factory managers the insights they need to make decisions quickly. Cameras can also be incorporated, creating a smart vision system to provide firms with real-time visualisation of workers and processes using edge computers and cameras. Alerts can be enabled which, when needed, ensure quick action, saving time and money, preventing costly and dangerous errors.

Sensing a sea change in daily operations

Bringing together IoT hardware and AI-powered software, machine monitoring technologies are able to analyse what is happening around a machine, detect hazardous conditions, fire and smoke, sudden falls and even the use of PPE detection, to help manufacturers effectively monitor their operations in real-time. At the same time, deep learning-based machine vision software helps to distinguish the acceptable variations and defects in products, minimising human intervention while ensuring quality control.

“Away from the factory floor, sensors are also helping to prevent workplace contamination by stopping illnesses entering the building and spreading in the first instance,” Gupta says. “It is now possible to quickly set up a screening area at the entry point to a building and scan each employee for illnesses such as high temperature or a cough. These are, of course, common ailments and the technology is not (yet) designed to identify complex viruses. However, the premise is that potentially damaging threats can be found and addressed early. There are already businesses using this technology, like RGE Group, based in Cambridgeshire.

“That is not to say any individual with a mild temperature will be quarantined or sent home – far from it. But a simple scanning technology can inform those that run the building if a member of staff is coming in with symptoms that should be examined. Everyone can then be treated on a case by case basis.  Knowing what we know now about Covid-19, this technology would have been invaluable to every industrial operation at the early phase of the outbreak, potentially saving lives in the process.”

Adapting to the new normal of manufacturing

Manufacturers need to think differently if they are to recover quickly from the impact of COVID-19 and build resilience to cope with whatever the next crisis is. Decentralisation offers a solution to prevent future chokepoints in production and ensure business continuity, but it needs to be efficiently enabled with the right technology.

“That means digital solutions, specifically IoT and AI, that deliver smart manufacturing platforms with smart vision systems,” Gupta concludes. “By combining the two, in simple to use sensors and sophisticated software with existing machinery, manufacturers can connect their facilities without exorbitant costs and time delays.”

Read more – Bringing the factory home