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How the pandemic is changing operations in U.S. factories

Manufacturers have been adding connected tech and more automation to their factories in recent years. While the manufacturing sector has been an early adopter of dedicated sensors and controllers for decades, in the last few years, manufacturers have invested in tools to link the operations side of their business to the IT side to help boost productivity, improve operational efficiency and drive greater automation.

But now, with the pandemic shutting down the country, many factories are being asked to step up. Companies large and small are retooling their plants to make medical equipment and protective gear while also trying to protect their employees from layoffs and illness. It’s a tough time, and the general consensus is that factories are turning to remote operations and the use of robots is on the rise

First up, it’s worth making clear the difference between the two main categories of manufacturing: process manufacturing and discrete manufacturing. In process manufacturing, the factory is making an end product, and follows the same process to make that end product every time. For example, the end product could be chocolate or it could be chemicals, but the equipment is generally running the same process all the time. And in many cases, the entire factory is designed around just one or two specific processes. In discrete manufacturing, the factory is making a product that is assembled as part of the manufacturing process. Think iPhones, furniture, cars, and probably a lot of what one imagines when one thinks of a manufacturing plant. With the advent of COVID-19, most of the focus is on discrete manufacturing because that’s how the world will get PPE and ventilators. So what’s happening there? To find out, I turned to MachineMetrics, a startup founded in 2015 that has a wide range of manufacturing clients. Its software takes data from machines, aggregates it, and provides customers with insights based on it to help improve their operations. MachineMetrics’ co-founder and CEO, Bill Bithers, said the data is showing both how automotive companies’ manufacturing experienced a rapid decline in mid-March as Detroit shut down and how those factories are now coming back online, to make ventilators. He noted that one customer retooled a brake rotor manufacturing plant in less than three weeks in order to produce ventilators. “I’ve been kind of blown away that our customers can retool so quickly,” he told me. Meanwhile, during a webinar held this week on the topic of manufacturing in a COVID-19 era, Aneesa Muthana, CEO of Chicago-area contract manufacturer Pioneer Service, said her company saw orders dry up almost overnight as demand for electric car parts stopped, but that Pioneer retooled to start making parts for ventilators and is now going strong. Her biggest challenge is her workforce — namely how to keep them employed and working during a time when business is incredibly uncertain. She said Pioneer usually has one operator running three machines, but today it might only have one working on two machines, or even one operator working on just one machine and spending the rest of their time cleaning. She’s trying to hold onto her workforce. As she noted, “What you’re doing today is going to define you as a company.” And when it comes to technology broadly and the internet of things specifically, both are helping Pioneer get high-quality products out the door — fast. Other manufacturers on the webinar were also focused on employees. Michael Tamasi, CEO and president of AccuRounds in Massachusetts, said about 10% of his employees can’t come into work because they are immunocompromised. He’s also trying to split employees into two shifts, both to help with social distancing and to make sure needed production ramps up. It also provides a back-up team when people get sick. Outside of the employee-related challenges manufacturers are facing is a macro challenge tied to increasing automation and ensuring that today’s workforce can continue to learn and remain relevant as their jobs increasingly demand more decision-making and expertise. There was a lot of discussion on the webinar about how to build training programs that keep employee skills up to date. And all of the presenters stressed that doing so would become more important as time goes on, because one effect of the coronavirus is that many companies want to ensure they have some local manufacturing capabilities going forward. In the world of process manufacturing, the remote management of operations has been a big trend, in part because many of the processes are dangerous and use toxic chemicals. Jason Urso, CTO at Honeywell Process Solutions, said that company is trying to address a worker shortage at its plant in Orange, Texas by using its own remote operations software to let experts at another one of its plants monitor and address issues there. Urso was short on specifics, including how many people are staffing the plant post-quarantine, but did say it’s possible for engineers and plant operations employees to work from home and still keep a plant operating smoothly. Workers are still needed to handle problems as they arise and presumably to oversee certain operations, but having remote access and operational control is enabling more of their employees to stay home. Broadly speaking, manufacturing is going to change as a result of the pandemic, and it’s clear that industrial IoT is going to help determine the direction the industry goes. I find it heartening that so many CEOs are thinking about their workers and recognizing that even in a world with greater automation, people will still be needed.

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