Post-COVID, Manufacturers Revise Technology and Workforce Strategies

By Keith Higgins

Companies must maintain a dual focus to remain resilient and competitive.

COVID-19 prompted upheaval to an entire manufacturing industry struggling to adapt to workplace health concerns, market shifts in demand and, especially, major  supply chain disruptions. Many companies responded with heavy  investments in technology, which helped U.S. manufacturing activity to not only survive, but actually surge to  a 37-year high. As the sector collectively wipes its brow and looks to the future, manufacturers must now size up how both their technology and workforce dynamics have changed in the wake of these investments—and what this altered landscape means for the strategic outlook for moving forward.

Technology Investment and Industry 4.0 Helped Manufacturers Stay Resilient
The pace of investment during COVID-19 in technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing, digital supply chain and other areas fueled a juggernaut of manufacturing innovation that amounts to  five years' worth of advancement in just 18 months. This allowed manufacturers to preserve health and infrastructure, while scaling quickly to adjust to shifting demand and  supply chain impacts ranging from rising commodities prices and record-long lead times to transportation gaps and critical  shortages of semiconductors and other basic materials.

IoT and other advanced Industry 4.0 technologies proved particularly useful in helping manufacturers weather the pandemic.  Supply chain modernization allowed companies stay resilient with more agility and automation to adapt to fast changing conditions. To protect health, IoT-based access-control systems helped many facilities provide contactless entry, with some tying these systems to thermal imaging cameras to detect elevated body temperature as a sign of possible sickness. Meanwhile,  Ford tested RFID wristbands to enforce social distancing, with the devices vibrating and sending alerts to supervisors when workers got too close on the factory floor.

Beyond those COVID-specific applications, manufacturers saw value and resiliency overall across their operations from IoT and other advanced industrial technologies once the pandemic hit. A  McKinsey global survey of more than 400 companies found that 94 percent believed their investments in Industry 4.0 helped keep operations running during the pandemic. The survey found more than half (56 percent) considered these technologies "critical" to their crisis responses; and the report cautioned those who hadn't yet started on their Industry 4.0 journeys to view the pandemic as a "wake-up call" for urgent investment.

Post-pandemic, this renewed urgency to scale and expand IoT and related innovations is being facilitated by the ongoing growth of both edge computing and 5G networks. The 5G services market is projected to grow 46 percent annually over the next seven years and become a  $664 billion market by 2028. Meanwhile,  Gartner projects edge computing will grow to the point at which, by 2025, three quarters of enterprise data will be created and processed at the edge.

The confluence of these two trends will help support manufacturing IoT with reduced latency and more bandwidth. Given that edge computing happens at or near the data source and that 5G networks provide improved bandwidth and ultra-low latency, the resulting environment will support a variety of industrial use cases around preventive and predictive maintenance, production forecasting, dynamic facilities management, behavior monitoring and more. These are just some of the factors that will define digital strategy throughout the next several years. But for many manufacturers, the workforce outlook has changed just as radically as technology.

Transforming the Workforce to be More Agile and Data-Driven
The substantial shifts underway in the manufacturing workforce didn't start with the pandemic, but they were accelerated by it. Remote monitoring of factory assets with sensors and real-time analytics increased to minimize human occupancy and protect health without slowing down production. And health concerns provided one more reason to scale up automation to replace tedious or repetitive tasks, satisfying long-standing goals for efficiency and the short-term urgency to clear out crowded factory floors.

The result is that manufacturers now require improved human infrastructure applications to help workforces adapt to newly digitized and agile manufacturing environments that are here to stay. This includes remote training solutions, aided by augmented reality and 3D-based work instruction, to upskill the workforce and do so safely. Digital investments in manufacturing are expected to  continue for the foreseeable future, meaning these and related workforce development initiatives won't subside anytime soon.

The Manufacturing Institute, for example, reports  70 percent of manufacturers see a critical need during the next five years to find and train staff with skills to engineer and maintain operating systems of robotics that are proliferating on factory floors. That's part of a broader challenge for the industry to fill half a million open jobs to get the manufacturing workforce up to full capacity, which could add up to  $1 trillion to the U.S. economy by the end of the decade.

Because of these trends, we'll see an increasingly data-literate and agile workforce over time that's better able to quickly analyze and troubleshoot manufacturing. And there will be a similar maturation on the management side, as division leaders and executives learn to internalize agile software-development principles like continuous delivery, decentralized decision making and frequent measurement—so they can apply these principles, wherever possible, to the production environment.

COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation in manufacturing. But the continued trajectory further into modernized operations—and a more agile and highly trained workforce to run those operations—won't end with the pandemic. Because of this, manufacturing companies must maintain a dual focus on both technological and workforce considerations—a strategic outlook that will define the success for manufacturers hoping to remain resilient and competitive well into the future.

Keith Higgins is  Rockwell Automation's VP of digital transformation at. He previously served as the VP at FogHorn and CMO at RiskVision until its acquisition in 2017. Higgins was also an executive at Symphony Teleca Corp., an IoT and connected services company, where he played an integral role in the doubling the company's revenue, leading to a nearly $1 billion acquisition by Harman.