Recovery and resilience: What technologies are key for the post-COVID factory?

Nov. 13, 2020
Process manufacturers are now realizing that to persevere and build more resiliency for the future, they’ll need the ability to collect, analyze and act on insights from quality data in real time, from any location — not just the plant floor.

Jason Chester is responsible for the implementation, management and overall success of the InfinityQS Global Channel Partner Program. With more than 25 years of experience working directly within the Enterprise IT industry, he has gained a deep understanding of how information technology capabilities can deliver significant and sustainable business value to end-user organizations. Currently, Chester’s main area of interest is the business impact of next-generation information technologies on industrial and manufacturing sectors.

Process manufacturers are no strangers to risk. After all, tackling issues around quality, safety and the supply chain are par for course in their everyday operations. However, COVID-19 has brought a wave of disruption far beyond what even the most seasoned industry veterans have ever encountered, let alone imagined.

At the height of the pandemic, the process manufacturing sector was hit hard by supply shortages, demand volatility and facility shutdowns. In plants that remained opened, social distancing and safety measures meant key personnel were suddenly forced to work remotely, which limited on-site support and hindered productivity.     

Now, as we cautiously enter the recovery phase, process manufacturers must think smarter about how to optimize production, reduce costs and maximize the use of available resources. Many are taking this time to re-evaluate legacy systems and processes — often finding that outdated approaches to quality management have caused more problems than solved throughout the pandemic.

A wake-up call for digital transformation   

Over the years, the industry at large has invested heavily in automating and digitizing many aspects of the manufacturing process. Yet, it is surprisingly common for facilities to still rely on manual data collection, spreadsheets or even paper checklists for quality control.

Process manufacturers are now realizing that to persevere and build more resiliency for the future, they’ll need the ability to collect, analyze and act on insights from quality data in real time, from any location — not just the plant floor.

Fortunately, the building blocks needed to accelerate this digital transformation and build “smarter” post-COVID-19 factories are readily available today.  

1. Automated data collection for real-time information  

On top of being time-consuming and error-prone, manual data collection techniques leave quality personnel several steps behind production processes. By the time data are reviewed, it is often already too late to take preventive action. Plant-floor personnel then spend their shifts in firefighting mode, reacting to problem after problem — not the best use of time when you already have a reduced onsite workforce.  

Facilities can instead implement quality management software that integrates with processing equipment and sensors. Such solutions automatically collect and monitor production data, sending real-time notifications and quality alerts to necessary personnel. Operators and quality teams are then empowered to take timely corrective actions that maintain quality, reduce waste and protect profits, which are more important than ever in these uncertain times.

2. Cloud solutions for remote monitoring

While some process manufacturers already have quality control software in place, these solutions tend to be rigid, on-premises systems. Quality data is inaccessible outside the plant walls, preventing remote managers and dispersed quality teams from effectively performing their duties.       

Instead, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)-based quality management systems enable all data to be centralized, standardized and accessible in a cloud repository. This provides the flexibility needed for employees to stay connected and collaborate, even while working from the safety of their homes.

Such cloud-based solutions are also fast and simple to deploy and can be scaled as needed. This makes it easy for managers, quality professionals and other key decision-makers to quickly pivot to remotely monitoring products, lines and plants in their organization. All they need is a device with an internet connection.

3. SPC for intelligent, actionable insights  

Simply having remote access to real-time data does not provide the insights needed to speed recovery now and protect continuity in the post-pandemic world. Process manufacturers need to understand — by way of data analysis — current issues, concerning trends and where the greatest opportunities lie for continuous product and process improvement.

That is where statistical process control (SPC) comes in.

SPC is the industry standard methodology for analyzing, monitoring and predicting the performance of a particular process or product characteristic. SPC software compares collected quality data against pre-defined control limits to detect abnormal trends and variations in real-time. It allows process manufacturers to thereby anticipate and prevent problems before they can negatively impact their business.

SPC software also aggregates and analyzes historical data, uncovering actionable ways to enhance quality, reduce risks and maximize performance company-wide. So, as process manufacturing leaders shift their mindsets from “survive” to “thrive,” these real-time, cloud-based solutions will help build the foundation for an optimized and resilient post-COVID factory.

After the wave of disruption, the tides are beginning to turn

Though the last several months have been difficult, I can offer you some signs of hope that manufacturers around the world are ramping up production and establishing a new sense of stability.

At InfinityQS, we recently conducted a client survey with manufacturers around the world which showed nearly 74% of respondents are optimistic toward the future. These manufacturers are adapting and rebounding in the wake of the pandemic, adopting new technologies and processes for managing production and controlling quality, including 75% who noted their workers are now working remotely. 

These manufacturers are accelerating digital transformation initiatives, as evident in a steady increase in the number of proofs of concept for our cloud-based quality management systems, quadrupling in the last three months. In June, we also saw a 316% spike in requested professional services hours — compared to March — with clients seeking support as they begin increasing their production to pre-pandemic levels. 

While what lies ahead remains unclear, process manufacturers can find comfort in the green shoots appearing across the industry. But to survive and then thrive in the post-pandemic age, organizations must take proactive steps now and invest in the necessary technologies for true digital transformation. Those who can readily collect, centralize, analyze and act on real-time quality data will be the ones best equipped to recognize and navigate any future disruptions.