by Richard Howells

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturers have had to scramble to serve customers in new ways. Now, with the initial wave of vaccines rolling out, you can almost see an end to this health crisis within sight, it may be tempting to assume that business will go back to the pre-pandemic normal.

But I’m not so sure – and that’s good thing! 

To me, it’s quite clear that many of the lessons learned during the pandemic will continue to be relevant for manufacturers moving forward. One important lesson is the value of agile business processes powered by data and intelligent technology – otherwise known as Industry 4.0.

Here are some ways in which Industry 4.0 has helped manufacturers during this time of change – and, hopefully, will continue to drive better performance and flexibility into the future.

Smart operations and employee safety

Industry 4.0 technology is being used to ensure employee safety on the shop floor. PPE, for example, can include IoT sensors that send alerts when workers come within six feet of one another.

Similar sensors can be used to monitor shop floor conditions – oxygen levels, temperature, air quality, etc. The result will be greater employee safety moving forward – whether the focus is on controlling the spread of disease or any other hazards employees may face.

Industry 4.0 technology is also being used to automate processes in ways that keep employees out of harm’s way while also improving productivity. Before going into an unfamiliar job or situation, for instance, operators can train with virtual reality. particularly dangerous aspects of a job can be entirely automated with robotics.

Tedious and repetitive jobs can be automated too – such as moving goods through a warehouse or doing QA checks on a production line. Increasingly, organizations are automating warehouse logistics with robots that calculate the fastest route from point A to B – while humans work directly with the robots to optimize warehouse operations. Expect more of the same even after COVID-19 passes.

Empowered people are happy people

How, exactly, might humans work with the robots in warehouse scenarios? One possibility is for humans to do the picking and then load the robots trailing behind to transport the order to the shipping area. But even when it comes to picking, Industry 4.0 can help.

Imagine augmented reality goggles with voice control capabilities that display relevant information in the worker’s field of vision. This technology can be used to guide the warehouse worker to the right storage area to pick a product, highlight the relevant bin, and scan the bar codes. Then the worker can hand the product off to a robot waiting in the wings.

Industry 4.0 technology empowers people in other ways as well. Think of decision support based on artificial intelligence, process automation that frees up workers for more value-added activities, and predictive analytics that help organizations see what’s coming.

These technologies have helped leading organizations respond more effectively to changes during coronavirus. Let’s assume that organizations will continue to value such responsiveness moving forward.   

Intelligent assets and products make supply chains smarter

Intelligent assets have played an important role in helping organizations manage uncertainty over the past several months. These, too, will prove to valuable well into the future.

Smart assets use sensors to continuously report on asset health. They also create a digital thread that can be tracked from design to decommission.

The digital twin of an asset, for instance, can be used to simulate scenarios and evaluate potential asset performance under variable conditions. This can lead to design changes that improve asset performance, increase availability, and optimize maintenance procedures.  

The same intelligence can be designed into the products that manufacturers sell to retail customers as well. Sensors that communicate back to the manufacturer can help build relationships with customers while generating valuable insights that lead to product improvements and new innovations.

This will only continue when COVID-19 is in the rearview mirror of the autonomous vehicles of the future.

The road ahead

The point is that for manufacturers, the future is bright. The technologies that have helped many organizations survive the pandemic will now be unleashed to help the same organizations thrive when the pandemic is history. I, for one, can’t wait.