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Why digital technologies can help manufacturers combat the challenges of Covid-19


Nick Leeder, vice president, digital transformation solutions – field at PTC, explains how augmented reality and cloud-based technologies can help manufacturers minimise global economic shocks, such as Covid-19.

Less than one week after it declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced it was joining forces with the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) to mobilise the global business community in the fight against the coronavirus.

“All businesses have a key role to play in minimising the likelihood of transmission and impact on society,” the two organisations said in a joint statement. “Early, bold and effective action will reduce short-term risks to employees and long-term costs to businesses and the economy.”

This collaboration will be welcome news to many business leaders, who are dedicated to protecting worker safety whilst ensuring business continuity at a time of great uncertainty and a constantly changing backdrop of new developments and emerging insights.

Supply and demand shocks
To understand what those changes might or should look like, it’s worth reviewing the economic impacts that manufacturing businesses have felt so far during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Initially, the economic shocks were primarily supply chain related. During January and February, factory closures and paralysed container ports in China caused exports to plummet, leaving manufacturers in other parts of the world facing long waits for vital parts and materials. While there are signs that productivity in China has started to rally, trade experts have warned that delays and shortages are likely to continue for some time to come.

According to a survey from the Institute for Supply Management in early March, nearly 75% of companies reported supply chain disruptions in some capacity due to the coronavirus outbreak. Almost six out of ten (57%) noted longer lead times for tier 1 China-sourced components, with average lead times more than doubling compared to the end of 2019. Notably, 44% said they do not have a plan in place to address supply chain disruption from China, perhaps making this a good place to start with operational changes that can be supported by digital technologies.

During March, however, many manufacturers have begun to contend with their own shutdowns as the virus has spread to pretty much every country in the world. In the UK for example, several leading automotive OEMs have been forced to close factories temporarily in recent weeks, including BMW, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan.

In part, that’s because parts from China aren’t arriving on time, but it’s also because workers are now being ordered to stay at home to flatten the curve. This strongly suggests a need to make manufacturing a more ‘lift and shift’ affair, where possible, so that work can be diverted to teams working on sites in other regions.

Finally, many manufacturers anticipate a profound demand shock further down the line, as consumers reign in their spending sharply, in response to the social distancing that involves extended periods at home and curtailed working hours.

Economists are watching the situation in the UK, Europe and the United States with concern, for early signs of a global recession. Either way, manufacturers may need to keep a close eye on demand patterns and tweak production schedules in the months ahead.

Rapid, robust responses
Despite these impacts, and a rather negative outlook, there are still measures manufacturers can take to cope better in the current situation – as well as prepare for others that may arise in the future.

After all, ‘expecting the unexpected’ is already a proven strategy for success in manufacturing, where carefully laid plans can quickly and easily be thrown off-course by an extreme weather event, a trade war, a labour dispute, supplier bankruptcy or, in this case, a global pandemic.

Fortunately, digital technologies provide several ways for manufacturing companies to mount rapid, robust responses to the challenging situations that arise in a crisis. These responses might include:

Collaborative problem-solving
With cloud technology, vital data is held in a centralised location, accessible to all authorised users, regardless of their individual location. In a time of crisis, that means that employees can work together to tackle issues that arise, such as supply-chain shocks when a supplier is unable to deliver.

There are also software-as-a-service (SaaS) design and management platforms available that can provide a secure solution for staff to collaborate on designs, and reallocate engineering resources to get projects completed and keep a record of what decisions were made, and why – all from a web browser. With a SaaS subscription model, new users can be added and be up and running in minutes and the number of seats can be scaled up or down, giving companies much-needed agility.

Knowledge/skills transfer
If manufacturing processes need to be shifted from one site to another in response to a crisis, augmented and mixed reality (AR/MR) solutions are a valuable weapon in getting workers up to speed on unfamiliar tasks or processes. This enables subject matter experts to make a video of themselves performing a work task via an AR/MR headset, in which they explain what they are doing, step-by-step. Once the procedure has been captured in this way, it can be edited, enhanced and then shared with employees who need to learn that task.

15 of my colleagues are currently adopting this approach to support VentilatorChallengeUK’s bid to create 10,000 more ventilators for the UK. Using our PTC Vuforia Expert Capture, we have captured the build process at Smiths and Penlon and are transferring it, through Microsoft HoloLens glasses, to workers at other factories in the consortium. By using the power of augmented reality, we have reduced set-up lead times and drastically cut the possibility of transmission during manufacturing, whilst still delivering medically approved ventilators in the volumes required.

Supporting products remotely
Remote assistance applications, which enable two people in different locations to share a live, real-time view of the same environment, can be very important when business travel is discouraged or out of the question and field staff might not be able to support products locally,

During the current coronavirus crisis, PTC is offering its support to the manufacturing community worldwide, by making Vuforia Chalk freely available to any organisation that requires help in dealing with the challenge of closed-down offices and factories.

Looking to the future
While things may feel pretty volatile right now, it’s never too early for manufacturers to start thinking about what measures might be taken to alleviate immediate problems and be more prepared to prevent them in future.

As the authors of a recent article in the Harvard Business Review point out: “Covid-19 is not a one-off challenge. We should expect additional phases to the current epidemic and additional epidemics in the future.”

They continue: “Preparing now for the next crisis (or the next phase of the current crisis) is likely to be much more effective than an ad hoc, reactive response when the crisis actually hits.”

CTS The industrialisation of IT
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