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6 predictions: What manufacturing could look like after COVID-19

Aug 19, 2021

Third in a three-part series

Part 1: How past crises have given rise to incredible innovation and disruption
Part 2: How manufacturers have responded to COVID-19

So, we’ve covered how past crises gave rise to incredible innovation, and how manufacturers responded early on to COVID-19 in creative ways, but what about after the pandemic? How might the manufacturing industry change? What kind of amazing innovation can we expect to see?

Let’s forecast the six biggest potential impacts on life after COVID-19:

1. Buying preferences

After SARS in 2003, we saw the true rise of e-commerce. After COVID-19, we’ll likely see even less brick and mortar in consumer buying preferences. And less brick and mortar requires more effective and efficient buying transactions and expectations, akin to the Amazon model.

As the demand for more efficient buying of materials in manufacturing rises, we’ll see more interactive portals between customers, suppliers and manufacturing operations — providing visibility and traceability as well as predicting needs. People get the Amazon experience in their personal lives and will expect it in their professional lives, too. They’ll want mobile access that allows remote transactions at a tap of the button.

With more digital dependency as a result of this, blockchain and its security will likely pivot from single-source vulnerabilities to ecosystem visibility and authentication, helping to mitigate fraudulent activities. Every manufacturer knows how their large procurement needs make them targets for fraud, and blockchain is the answer.

2. Supply chain visibility, inventory and sustainability

After COVID-19, we could see the global sourcing process replaced with dynamic risk-mitigation algorithms based on numerous factors, from weather forecasts to current or evolving political situations. Technology could help target where you’re vulnerable in your supply chain.

Plus, with greater supply chain digitization, where everything has RFID to GPS to blockchain, technology can transfer data without human input, keeping your supply chain running smoothly and maintaining a clear audit trail. This, in turn, will allow more back-office automation.

There will be more wearable technology so people can stay up to date, buy what they need or even change their minds based on real-time information.

And we may even see the rise of the circular supply chain ecosystem, where materials and products are reused through reverse logistics of multiple companies cooperating for cost benefits and sustainable strategies. The biggest cost in manufacturing is freight, and much of what’s involved is reusable by you or someone else. You simply need the visibility and connections in place to make it work. In a post-COVID-19 world, that seems possible.

3. Connected machines and ecosystems

Technology has already done an amazing job of connecting machines and ecosystems, and that’s only going to ramp up after COVID-19. Highspeed 5G connections make Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and the cloud more relevant than ever for manufacturers. More people will have the ability to monitor what’s happening on the shop floor in real-time, and, combined with robotics, this will pave the way for a completely remote shop floor workforce. Like a pilot manning an airplane on autopilot, your workforce can monitor and adjust as needed.

Robotics is key for repetitive work. Robots can complete quality control and auditing functions, taking note of dimensions and color and logging the information. Drones can launch automatically, flying through warehouses and scanning RFIDs to take a virtual count of inventory. Supply chain adjustments based on demand and production variability can be automated.

For example, if your rack gets down to 10 sheets of steel, the robot automatically places an order with your steel supplier. That supplier puts it on the truck, and the robot receives the tracking information, as well as the invoice. It draws the funds from your bank account to pay the invoice. The audit trail is there, but no human intervention is needed.

4. Remote workforce

With a more remote workforce comes other opportunities, even around professional social networking events. You could continue hosting or attending virtual trade shows. Manufacturers spend hundreds of millions of dollars on trade shows, but if you create virtual trade shows where you can view and speak to different providers, you could avoid the costs of renting booths, moving equipment, and booking hotel rooms and airplane tickets. Virtual trade shows are primed to expand after COVID-19.

We definitely have the technology right now to help employees become more productive at home. Open source apps put the tools right in your hands. And a remote workforce widens your talent pool considerably, making it possible to hire far outside your standard range. Plus, gig sourcing (aka hiring a freelancer) is a good alternative for specific jobs that would have been done remotely anyway.

5. Knowledge transfer

Flattening the learning curve in manufacturing is especially important. There’s so much tribal knowledge involved that it can be overwhelming to consider how best to transfer knowledge, especially as the most knowledgeable retire. I predict this ramping up in importance after COVID-19.

A teacher tool box can document current best practices quickly and efficiently. It flattens the learning curve with multimedia content, from videos to photo instruction templates to written content. And it enables you to share best practices across unrelated entities. Find out who else is doing something like this and what their best practices are. What can you learn from them?

You could even eliminate the need for temp agencies. Once the knowledge is transferred, that person becomes a resource who can borrowed and shared. And that leads us to our last prediction.

6. Resource and risk sharing

Similar to Uber or Airbnb technology platforms, we could see the rise of technology that provides access to machine and people capabilities. In a real-life example, right now, GE provides jet engines to airlines on a subscription basis, and they maintain the engines and guarantee uptime.

OEMs have the ability to provide technology, machinery and people in exchange for fees. They could create a platform to barter on, exchanging one service for another, or paying traditionally. If you’re thinking this sounds like a bookkeeping nightmare, blockchain is the way to solve that. It can identify who borrowed what and how much it’s worth and track it all, helping create a different way of using and exchanging assets.

Manufacturing trends 2021 and beyond

In manufacturing, if you stand around too long, you become extinct. Any major crisis, from a recession to a pandemic, is a reason to look inward at your processes and capabilities and then outward at what’s possible.

Now is the time to capitalize on the shifts in the manufacturing industry. The technology keeping you operating today is the same technology that will launch new opportunities for those who view this time as a once-a-decade chance to advance. It’s only your mindset that needs to be challenged. And the alternative is to wait and run the risk of being disrupted.

Need help navigating the COVID-19 pandemic and its changes? Contact Wipfli for assistance with anything from PPP loan eligibility to change management to technology to strategic planning.

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Mark Stevens
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