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How manufacturing companies should leverage digital engagement over the new decade

April 02, 2020By
Woman in a factory sitting on a computer looking at a diagram of a car

This is the first of a two-part series on digital transformation in manufacturing. Keep an eye out for Anandhi’s follow-up article exploring the ways Salesforce can address the challenges of today's manufacturers.

As high tech and other industries hurriedly respond to COVID-19 by transitioning to remote operations, industries like manufacturing face more complex questions. Manufacturing is by nature physical, requiring workers on a shop floor to make or assist in the making of products. Supporting functions have also been proximal, shaping a workforce that is accustomed to commuting to an office every day. So how should the industry respond to a crisis like COVID-19?

Many manufacturing firms have been able to rely on low-tech solutions and sophisticated spreadsheets to coordinate teams across supporting functions. The industry has instead focused efforts on engineering and problem solving, in particular around process. Programs, like Lean Manufacturing, advocate for Gemba walks and Kaizen events where re-engineering a process is done in teams and put into action immediately.

In my early days, I used to sort parts by date code and lot code on Friday nights to ensure adequate supply for weekend shift operations. This isn’t bad practice — we shouldn’t understate the value of observation and human judgment. However, in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, manufacturing companies should look to strengthen the physical with the digital, allowing for greater flexibility in areas that are not required to be physically static.

Finding balance between on-premise and off-premise

The impact with which COVID-19 has landed upon us has shaken up the manufacturing industry, generating a need to revisit entrenched ideas about how the industry operates. Can products be manufactured remotely? No, but not everyone needs to work on-premise. Taking another essential service as an example, local grocery stores are successfully balancing priorities. While providing people with food, they’re reducing the spread of the virus by restricting the number of shoppers on-premise at a given time (as well as promoting online shopping).

Similarly, manufacturers need to shift by identifying which workers need to be at the plant and which can support remotely. The most obvious hurdle preventing manufacturing employees from working at home, is that manufacturers currently lack the necessary infrastructure. Overcoming this challenge will mean distributing laptops for employees to work remotely while ensuring off-premise access doesn’t affect existing security policies. Not a short feat overnight.

The manufacturer's seven-step digital transformation

As IT professionals, we know that tools are just one part of the equation. A new approach to people and process needs to be engineered to support a digital workforce. Manufacturers ought to reflect on how they work and accelerate existing strategies to move towards a digital engagement model; while preserving accelerated problem solving by encouraging teams to work together.

The below approach offers a response plan for manufacturers to transition towards digital as soon as possible:

  1. Set up remote infrastructure: Swiftly establish the means for staff to work remotely with hardware and appropriate software licences, while keeping security protocols intact.
  2. Enable remote teamwork: Invest in video technology and collaborative online tools to allow team-based problem solving activities to continue to thrive.
  3. Complete existing digital projects: Double down on any digital project in-flight that allows teams to complete their activities in a value chain, “passing the work” along to downstream or upstream functions and enabling transparency.
  4. Digitize meetings: Identify high frequency meetings that require groups to meet together, unpack the underlying processes and target a means to digitize.
  5. Let go of paper: Criticize all “paper” processes to establish alternatives. This includes mapping current and future state processes to enable intelligent decision-making (while at the same time augmenting any existing eco-strategy).
  6. Empower customer-facing teams: Focus on teams and processes that directly touch the customer, as these are the workers leave the greatest impression on customers and most influence their engagement.
  7. Get creative with Gemba: Re-imagine Gemba walks through video technology or drones.

The future of manufacturing

Moving forward, change in the manufacturing industry is necessary and inevitable. Incorporating a digital strategy will accelerate the movement of information to the right people, creating customer intimacy. Over time, the manufacturing workforce will develop a new set of skills that will allow companies to drive industry 4.0 agendas even faster. Additionally, the data generated by shifting to a digital model will enable the use of more advanced analytics and eventually, artificial intelligence. This is all to say that while the current crisis represents a threat to manufacturing companies, it also presents an opportunity for a long-term embrace of new technologies leveraged by other industries. To keep manufacturing safe in the coming decade, we need to break open the factory walls and think outside of the box.

Thinking outside the box is what manufacturers and engineers to best, but it’s also where we thrive. If your organization is under pressure to act decisively in the wake of COVID-19, reach out to us below. Let’s do some problem solving.

Is your organization under pressure to act decisively in the wake of COVID-19?

Thinking outside the box is what manufacturers and engineers to best, but it’s also where we thrive.

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