COVID-19 Reveals Shortcomings in Manufacturers’ Digital Strategies

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By Jonah Johnson

Software Architect

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Through Industry 4.0 initiatives, manufacturing has spent the last decade growing its digital footprint. The sudden emergence of COVID-19, however, has revealed underlying shortcomings and shined a light on digital gaps. 

Modern data platforms allow some employees to work remotely, reducing on-site footprint. For knowledge workers, technology specialists and non-operational workers, much of their work can be as effectively accomplished from home, reducing the risk of infection for all employees. The concepts surrounding this digital capability are table stakes; however, with its focus on physical plants the manufacturing industry has lagged other industries in adoption. 

Regardless of individual preparedness levels, no industry or sector was left unaffected — many did their best to simply react, pivot and survive. Even in a pandemic, manufacturers need to support their clients with a business continuity plan and matching digital strategy. Customers expect companies to maintain high levels of service while simultaneously reacting to business disruptions.

Manufacturers retool for remote work

When the effects of COVID-19 caused companies to reduce manufacturing staff while imposing social distancing measures, leaders realized that some operational support positions could be shifted to virtual or remote work. Existing technology, for the most part, was able to support the volume and pattern changes as more employees began working from home. At the same time, the industry was able to identify weaknesses and deploy resources to address problems.

Amid the pandemic, we’ve seen an increased need for knowledge workers to evaluate manufacturing production and priorities. For some companies, this has meant introducing new product lines and shifting priorities to capitalize on emerging markets fueled by the coronavirus. For example, many manufacturers such as Gucci, New Balance, Prada and Fiat Chrysler have started manufacturing face masks to help keep up with demand. 

Over the past few years, most manufacturers have made considerable investments in industry 4.0 technologies like machine-to-machine communication (M2M), the internet of things (IoT), data visualization and more. Let’s make sure the next course of action doesn’t detract from our existing plans and roadmaps. Now’s a good time to reflect, gather feedback and adjust business plans and priorities to protect our assets, recover technology and manage our revenue. Solutions must complement and focus on existing digital strategies.   

graphic showing approach to remote work in manufacturing

Research by enterprise software firm IFS found a strong correlation between enterprise mobility and digital transformation. The study on the proliferation of enterprise software mobility within the manufacturing sector revealed less than 20% of workers could communicate with C-level executives via mobile devices, such as smartphones or tablets. Furthermore, the relationship between business continuation planning —and digital and mobile strategies — is where the remote working solution lives. 

No matter how you view the problem, the solution must move software and data beyond the boundaries of the physical location.

Analyzing the business

Any assessment begins with people and classifying their roles. During this process, it’s crucial to scrutinize the percentage of work that can be completed off-site and what technology is capable and available to support this work. Note that some knowledge-worker roles can’t be fully remote like the manufacturing engineer who may spend 25% of their time working on equipment and 75% working remotely. Likewise, we need to assess each role against the pandemic and reassess its importance and impact on company revenue. The end result is a general categorized list of all roles and their importance to sustaining operations amid a pandemic that forces knowledge staff to work remotely.  This list can be used to refresh or supplement the business continuation plan.

Every year, billions of dollars are spent digitizing manufacturing processes. The four common barriers companies run into while modernizing their digital platforms include:

  1. Security and Compliance
  2. Budget Constraints
  3. Support for legacy equipment and systems
  4. Merging islands of automation (created by siloed or embedded software and disparate practices)

Normally, it’s the knowledge workers’ responsibility to navigate the barriers and gather data across platforms. And the solution isn’t as simple as providing VPN. Tools and data need to be provided so data can efficiently flow across systems and made accessible from anywhere.  Unfortunately, today many knowledge workers spend 80% of their time formatting data and 20% or less analyzing and presenting. The direct relationship to knowledge workers and their ability to gather and interpret data effectively requires a vital digital, mobile and remote strategy.  

Creating a strategy 

Before your team begins mapping solutions to barriers, consider addressing a few details within your enterprise technology roadmaps. For instance, some manufacturing firms have been reluctant to adopt cloud technologies based on numerous misconceptions that persist today. If a cloud strategy doesn’t exist and an aggressive cloud-first mentality isn’t in place, you will find yourself playing catch up compared to your peers. Healthcare and financial services industries have paved the way for cloud computing compliance and security, making it possible for industries like manufacturing to adopt tried and true practices seamlessly. 

Many manufacturers have moved towards a cloud-first strategy, which enables your workforce to easily work remotely. Through the cloud, companies today can run without a local data center and take advantage of new technologies at a fraction of the cost. 

The most frequently expressed misconceptions are lack of security. Cloud computing is not only secure, but offers the next generation of security models and capabilities. In the past, many companies have used a perimeter-based approach where only traffic inside the perimeter is trusted. The engineers behind BeyondCorp, which is a leading zero-trust security framework, view the perimeter approach as a medieval castle with a moat, and a single point of entry. Traffic outside the castle is considered non-trusted; thus only internal traffic is trusted. Although a perimeter solution has the larger single barrier for attackers to circumvent, the approach can work if the audience is captive and within the walls of the organization. However, anyone who makes it past the “drawbridge” will have access to the castle — i.e. your data.

Perimeter security isn’t ideal for enabling remote work. Today’s corporate security platforms operate zero-trust frameworks where all traffic is considered dangerous and non-trusted. In this scenario, security is based on user credentials without concern of network location. All traffic passes through multiple layers of security and authentication, which you can refine. Data is sacred and well protected by both manufacturers and their clients. However, we must challenge the age-old concepts of confining data to the factory, as network costs have plummeted and the cloud can be just as secure. More secure, according to some banks.

Refining solutions

Many of these solutions will support multiple roles and help you navigate the four barriers listed above, especially for non-operational support staff. Areas such as marketing, sales, HR and procurement should be easy to solve with widely available solutions. Many functional teams also use ERP and CRM platforms as well as other SaaS solutions, which are non-trusted and “live” outside the perimeter wall. 

When considering solutions keep in mind that remote capability will require a different security model that  is also well suited for cloud computing.  

Implementing solutions

Once we reach a point where roles, barriers and solutions have been vetted, we can map solutions and roles to the existing digital strategy based on impact and cost. A few new solutions may be added; however, priorities may shift in some cases. The action plan can be tracked to its completion, and we can mitigate risks accordingly. 

As COVID-19 continues to affect how we conduct business, your digital strategy will remain in constant flux. But with a solid foundation already in place, minor iterations are all that you’ll need to handle future challenges. We’ve all been caught off guard by the coronavirus, however, with lessons learned and knowing how to design around the four common barriers to digital strategy modernization, next time you’ll be in a better position to pivot and react without losing business continuity — and perhaps even outperform customer expectations.