Opinion: COVID-19 and the evolution of the manufacturing workforce

New ways of working necessitated by the pandemic could potentially signpost the next stage in the evolution of the manufacturing workforce, says Jason Chester, Director of Global Channel Programs, InfinityQS.

In the early stages of the first lockdown, non-essential staff were moved away from the plant floor to more isolated workspaces, with some even working from home. And for those that were required on the plant floor, health and safety measures needed to be rapidly implemented to protect workers. This included maintaining social distancing and reducing the number of shared surface touch points – such as equipment controls, digital interfaces and computer workstations.

For manufacturers that relied on manual or legacy systems for production monitoring and control, where critical production information is accessible only in the immediate vicinity to where it is captured, like at an inspection station, or on an HMI or SCADA interface, it caused a significant amount of pain.

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With no clear end in sight, manufacturers had no option but to rapidly pivot and turn to other solutions quickly, but how? For some, migrating those manual data silos to unified cloud-based solutions was the answer. Providing the ability for real-time production and quality data to be monitored, analysed and acted upon from anywhere, at any time and from any device.

Cloud-based solutions also provided another critical capability. They could be deployed at scale and at speed. For those manufactures that did not have time on their side, it helped them to make that transition in weeks rather than the months (or even years) that is typical with more traditional forms of IT initiatives. This tactical approach to digital transformation solved many operational headaches quickly. But it is also the driving force behind addressing another significant source of pain brought about by the pandemic.

The playbook of forecasting and planning was torn up, literally overnight. Demand forecasting went into meltdown, as consumers suddenly and radically changed their purchasing behaviours – such as stockpiling goods, switching to different product formats and the mass move to eCommerce, for example. That volatility and uncertainty in demand still prevails today and there will still be some significant time before it returns to some semblance of normal.

Equally on the supply side, manufacturers have struggled immensely with significant disruption in the sourcing of raw materials and components. Supply chains became broken overnight as the production and distribution of goods became difficult to maintain. Then of course, for European manufacturers, a large dose of Brexit turmoil was sprinkled into the mix as well. It all turned in to the perfect storm for manufacturers.

The playbook of forecasting and planning was torn up, literally overnight

The same tactical digital transformation initiatives significantly helped manufacturers in that domain too. The real-time insights and actionable intelligence that they now have at their disposal has enabled them to fast track the optimisation of their production processes to maximise their efficiency. This meant they could meet demand with fewer inputs (people, materials, resources), or to increase their output with what inputs they did have.

What was once a long-term strategic vision, digital transformation became an urgent and necessary tactical response to the firefight. And for those manufacturers it is not a temporary fix. Rather an acceleration towards what would have been inevitable in the short to mid term future.

The consequence however is that those manufacturers now face a new challenge. Not only does their workforce need to adapt to these new work practices and tools but they must also learn to capitalise their value. An operator who was once used to writing periodic process parameters on a paper checklist, or a lab technician who once entered lab results into a spreadsheet, is now entering data into a real-time manufacturing quality intelligence solution for example.

But entering the data into these new systems is only a tiny fragment of the value they can provide. The wealth of insights that they then provide are invaluable in optimising the environments for which they are responsible for. The challenge for manufacturers now is on reskilling that workforce to leverage the capabilities of the tools, and information, that they now have at their fingertips. Likewise, for manufacturers to truly capitalise on these new digital environments requires investing in, and recruiting new talent, into the workforce that can drive even greater levels of innovation within these new digital production environments.

It is vital that manufacturers see this as a long term and permanent endeavour and not one that turns into a missed opportunity.

Jason Chester, Director of Global Channel Programs, InfinityQS.