Today we will discuss the future of manufacturing, examining the effects that new technologies and the pandemic are having in shaping its future. We will review the need for digital transformation and building resilience in global manufacturing supply chains and uncover what drives these changes which are needed to usher in this new era of manufacturing. Our goal is to establish a clear path which leads from status quo, which may be filled with challenge and chaos, to a modern manufacturing operations platform which is more robust and yet agile enough to deal with existing and future challenges.

Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation Challenges

The new Industrial Revolution (popularly referred to as Industry 4.0) started gaining momentum at the beginning of the last decade, ushering in the age of hyper-connectivity in operations and beyond, where readily available, abundant, actionable information and its use were at the core of business and strategy. New and sophisticated technologies and their incorporation in existing processes, either through assimilation or through process reconfiguration, became critically important topics in boardroom discussions. Manufacturers, along with the rest of the world, started to consider technologies like Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence and 3-D printing, along with the Industrial Internet of Things and Cloud, to help them accelerate their transformation to a modern, digitally-enabled entity.    

At the heart of this digital transformation was the need to have highly integrated, open, value-chain wide ecosystems. At the core, these ecosystems are data-driven, connected across and beyond organizational levels and locations, through IT applications like MES, which both amalgamates and enables the modern technology while empowering relevant stakeholders to leverage the information and technology being made available. MES solutions, with its ability to inculcate this modern technology, orchestrate/connect processes across the value chain, providing real-time, actionable information and connecting with applications at the enterprise level, making it the main catalyst for the digital transformation of manufacturing supply chains.   

To add fuel to this fire, necessitating the need for urgent and comprehensive digital transformation, came the COVID-19 pandemic, which continues to pose a global threat.  This disaster in its initial days and months created immense supply chain interruptions and demand barriers, globally, across economies, industries, supply chains and markets. Large scale disruptions, the collapse of global connectivity and limitations on movement of goods, coupled with restrictive regulations on operating plants and reductions in physically-present manpower, furthered the case of turning to more digital solutions to maintain resiliency from a value chain perspective. 

Manufacturers around the world, during the initial phase of COVID-19, faced problems of either complete or partial shutdowns lasting days and weeks. The lack of skilled workers (due to forced or voluntary absence or illness), the unavailability of supply chain partners or lack of supply chain routes, reduced or dwindling demand for ‘nonessential’ goods and most critical, the inability of the  workforce to operate normally at both plant and staff levels hindered productivity and progress.

Currently, the business world is in a transitional stage from mid-to-post pandemic, which is rife with uncertainty: continuing demand dampening due to the effects of the pandemic; whiplash effects on the supply chain, and threats of competitors securing a distinct & irreversible advantage.  This scenario affects the way in which business leaders view investments, and what gains higher priority are factors like using new technology to improve performance and profitability, and improving supply chain resilience, amongst others.   

So, as things morph toward a scenario which will form the ‘new normal’ across the world, there still remains an opportunity to incorporate digital technology to regain lost ground and increase resiliency.  This does not come without challenges:

  • the ability to secure continuity of business operations
  • the continued access to human and enterprise assets
  • the continuity of supply
  • the control over product quality and plant operations
  • the modification of sales strategy based on ever-changing manufacturing abilities and market dynamics (subject to government policy/regulations/restrictions & market trends)
  • the ability to preserve and improve cash flow and profitability during heightened uncertainty and chaos 

These challenges can be addressed only if the manufacturers make an effort to create and transform their operations into well connected, digitally-enabled and highly flexible supply chains, to ensure that their business can survive and even thrive, irrespective of what challenges are thrown at it.

It becomes quite evident that most manufacturers will need to transform their businesses to build reliance into the very core of their business operations; this means accelerating business process transformation through adoption of technologies like MES, to build the infrastructure needed for a robust, responsive and resourceful value chain.

A new Manufacturing Operations Platform

The two main deliverables for the new manufacturing operations platform then become quite well defined.

The first one would be to have the process owners and plant level employees connected digitally to the shop floor. Even if they can’t physically be where the activity occurs, the digital connection ensures that they can access of all the relevant process information necessary for compliant operations. This includes quality and compliance-related data, scheduling-related outcomes, machine performance data, maintenance-related activities and other performance-related variables are made available to process owners to enable them to make better informed decisions in real or near real time.

Another key deliverable is beyond the shop floor itself, at the management and business leadership level: the availability of real-time, actionable information from all manufacturing units. This would include information on changes in patterns of demand and fluctuations; in the availability of inventory both within the organization and at the extended supply chain partners’ levels; and determining the readiness of their partners to support operations across various plant locations. All of this can be achieved if the business leaders make a conscious effort to prioritize the creation of a well-connected manufacturing and supply ecosystem across the entire value chain, which relays actionable information across plants (both their own and their supplier’s), all the while aiding individual process owners to manage their plant’s operations (even remotely if required), without affecting the product quality/performance and ensuring schedules are met, standards are maintained and all compliances are in order.

How a Modern MES Can Help

Creating a robust infrastructure is easier said than done. Digital transformation which leads to strong and resilient value chains stems from data-driven business processes, which are information hungry, augmented and distributed in nature. A modern MES application facilitates this change from the status quo, as it allows processes to become ‘information hungry’ by enabling manufacturing execution through its functionality and by integrating with real-time plant applications like HMI and data historians, and finally by connecting with enterprise-level applications to both capture and relay copious amounts of relevant data at requisite levels.

A Modern MES also aids worker augmentation. Process owners gain access to data from the process itself; interactive workstations enable remote access and device independent applications, allowing users the freedom to operate and control the process without even needing to step into the plant.

The MES also enables augmented performance through AI and AR-enabled tools and facilitates the use of technologies like robots and AGVs to enable more efficient work.

The MES also assists actively in creating a more open value chain ecosystem, where information can travel freely, in real-time, allowing decisions to be made as and when events happen, to build the very resilience which is being sought. The MES through its ability to connect key contributors of the value chain helps transform a manufacturing organization from a ‘black box’ to a ‘business enabler.’

Modern MES applications, through their enhanced capabilities create a manufacturing operations platform, which is the key to the operational resilience and digital transformation that is most desired by business leaders. An ideal platform needs harmonized global operations, manufacturing intelligence, seamless integration with enterprise applications, clear connectivity between design and manufacturing operations, improved utilization of fixed assets and ability to ensure 100% compliance, with focus on reduction of environmental footprint.

Manufacturers and decision makers of these organizations need to make a conscious choice of accelerating process change through deployment of a Modern MES, which will result in a more robust, more digital and more new-world ready value chain.

The choice of the ideal MES application for your business is a complex topic as well, which we will address in future posts. However, we believe the need of having an MES at the very core of your digital transformation strategy is paramount to successfully transitioning your organization to an Industry 4.0-ready enterprise.

To learn more about the future of MES and its ability to build a resilient and digital supply chain, we invite you to watch Critical Manufacturing/IDC webinar on demand: