The Year That Reshaped Everything: Lessons Manufacturers Learned During the Pandemic

By David Isaacson on August 6, 2021

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has forever altered people’s lives, businesses, the economy and the way we live and work would be an understatement. Shortages of consumer-packaged goods and materials to develop products, manufacturers shutting down plants and shipping delays, continue to reverberate across the manufacturing industry. Yet, against the backdrop of these challenges – and perhaps borne out of necessity – has been a first-hand realization of the power of technology innovation in helping to keep the lights on.

Digital transformation, which may have been a lower-level priority in the business plan, quickly became the first line item for even the most traditional of businesses. Suddenly, a concept that has been around for years finally not only makes sense, but businesses can identify a clear payback. In fact, according to an IDG Research survey, 59 percent of IT decision makers surveyed say that pressures stemming from the pandemic are accelerating their digital transformation efforts.

Whether initiating a full-blown digital transformation or implementing critical pandemic-era technologies, many manufacturers have learned valuable lessons on how to succeed, keep customers and employees happy and engaged and keep vital supply chains full – all without missing a beat on maintaining quality and compliance goals.

Below are some of the lessons learned and critical solutions that have empowered manufacturers of all sizes.

Automation can go a long way in changing the physical nature of work. During the height of the pandemic (and continuing today) many manufacturers unable to conduct physical inspections, audits, and other manual processes, turned to automated solutions to reduce the number of people required to be in a plant or in the corporate office. Using Robotic Process Automation, Augmented Reality, analytics, and AI, for example, they were able to accomplish critical tasks while collecting valuable data to fuel quality management systems and inform future business decisions.

In fact, Gartner Group has identified hyperautomation as a top trend for the year, with organizations automating as much as possible to further efficiency and agility. While this has been a major goal for manufacturers in the recent past, the pandemic has created a greater urgency.

Everything would have been easier if we were already set up for remote work. At the onset of COVID-19, all types of companies scrambled to enable employees to conduct their jobs from home because the alternative was to furlough workers or shut down if it wasn’t an essential business. While many manufacturers are considered essential, there are many functions that could be conducted from home, such as billing and payments, sales, HR and marketing. What they found critical after the basics of laptops, Internet access and video conferencing capabilities were addressed, was the ability of software solutions or Enterprise Resource Platforms (ERPs) to scale to the business. Many manufacturers also found another requirement for remote work was having higher security measures to protect critical information.

The cloud removes physical barriers. Businesses have learned that regardless of remote technologies and equipment, very little would be possible without the cloud. Cloud-based solutions are enabling people to work from anywhere, and providing access to critical corporate portals, applications, and information. It’s also enabling internal supply chains in different locations to more easily transact within and across business units, and to have greater visibility across the company. For example, a manufacturer purchasing something in a different country can have a clear view into inventories, track how long it will take to receive the materials and have greater visibility across the process.

In many cases, businesses are offering a supplier portal so suppliers can respond more quickly to the needs of the manufacturer and perform self-audits, and partners can share key information. We can expect more and more manufacturers and suppliers leveraging cloud-based models for critical applications now and into the future.

Health & safety compliance has become much more complex. Adherence to ISO standards and other external and internal health & safety protocols has always been a key requirement of manufacturers, but the pandemic has added a whole new layer of complexity. Compliance to EHS standards and developing the internal processes to meet them are important since they reduce safety and health incidents, help companies improve productivity, reduce waste, and earn consumer trust, among other things. Integrated solutions are helping to ensure that processes are documented, actionable, and measurable to spot and correct any instances of noncompliance.

Quality can never be put on the back burner. As manufacturers that may have had to shut down plants, lay off workers and take a serious hit financially from the pandemic have learned, quality has become more important than ever. Unlike the uncontrollable aspects of the pandemic, one thing that can be controlled is quality. Manufacturers are now taking a data-driven approach to managing quality, so that production is not just measured according to how quickly products are produced, but on their level of quality, along with the quality of every related item and transaction across the supply chain. Digital technologies are enabling this and companies are making them part of their strategic roadmap for improving operational performance, identifying and addressing quality problems preemptively, ensuring regulatory compliance and, ultimately, enhancing brand reputation.

COVID-19 taught us many lessons and forever changed the way manufacturers operate, approach their businesses, and compete. One thing is for sure; it’s turned many a digital naysayer into tech champions now ready to move full steam ahead on their digital transformation journeys.