It was called the biggest factory shutdown since World War II. When lockdowns imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the manufacturing industry bore the brunt of it. Because production depends on physical processes, the challenge of enabling remote monitoring and control to keep workers safe was particularly acute.
The problems were compounded by sudden shifts in product demand. For example, homebound consumers turned to bicycles and baking bread, as opposed to buying cars and vacations requiring air travel.
Although manufacturers are staging a comeback, the recovery is uneven with ongoing logistics and supply-chain issues, as well as workplace challenges.
Yet, a key factor is making a difference between having the ability to bounce back or languish, according to a survey by McKinsey and Co. Those manufacturers that had completed or were in the midst of digital transformation when the pandemic hit fared better than those that hadn’t started.
In other words, moving from legacy, manual processes to systems powered by information technology gave manufacturers greater resilience to weather the pandemic storm. And it seems clear that this will serve them well in the face of any future upheavals in the global supply chain.
Industry 4.0 keeps production moving
The shift to what industrialists term Industry 4.0 had been in progress for years before the pandemic. But, as with so many other industries, COVID-19 put manufacturing’s digital transformation on fast forward.
“The industry was going through transition anyway,” says Emily Sporl, an audience marketing manager focused on the manufacturing sector at Cisco Meraki. “But the timeline for making digital transformation happen was compressed.”
Among the innovations during the transition have been: sensors; high-throughput, high-reliability networking; and state-of-the-art cybersecurity.
Those companies emerging from the ravages of 2020 are not the same as they were entering the sector’s most tumultuous period in 80 years. They’re more agile and better equipped for future disruption, Sporl says.
“There’s a sense that you can’t operate in silos anymore, that you need to connect everything, and you need to secure everything,” she says. “Whether we’re talking about robotic arms and forklifts on the factory floor or remote-worker laptops and servers in a carpeted space—all of those things need to be connected.”
The benefits of connectivity include better control over processes, manufacturing components, and tools, and enabling greater flexibility in the face of change, according to Sporl. Data and analytics from connected machines and devices also allow manufacturers to optimize production and alleviate bottlenecks, she says.
Given all that, it’s no wonder that nearly all (94%) of the manufacturing leaders surveyed by McKinsey named Industry 4.0 as a key factor enabling production during the pandemic. Many (56%) called it “critical” to navigating the crisis.
Fortunately, it’s not too late for companies to undertake digital transformation and realize the benefits of Industry 4.0. Sporl says they should start with the solid foundation of a cloud-managed network that’s secure and robust enough to handle both industrial processes and remote office work.
Learn more about how cloud-managed IT can help your organization meet the challenges of 2021. Visit us here.