After COVID-19: Manufacturing Needs to Boost Its Immunity

After COVID-19: Manufacturing Needs to Boost Its Immunity

May 5, 2020

Kissing manufacturing’s gaping wounds, laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, will not make them better. We need to infuse systems with greater resilience.

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This is quite a dystopian present we’re living in. In the blink of an eye, COVID-19 turned our collective health on its head; our global economy brought to its knees. The World Trade Organization estimates global trade to drop significantly in 2020 to as much as 13% to 32%. Like all disasters, this pandemic laid bare the strengths and faults of our systems. This includes everything from our immune systems to the resilience of leading industries shouldering our economies. Man has often looked to nature as a source of inspiration for innovation. Once again, it may be time to learn how to build robust systems to power through tough times.

Imitation Is the Best Form of Survival

The good news is, if infected with the COVID-19 virus, the majority of us can recover by relying on our own immune systems. How do we manage this without having been exposed to this type of virus before? We have our adaptable internal defense processes to thank. Our bodies study and analyze; calibrate and re-calibrate efforts until the threat dissipates. Afterwards, there is intense rebuilding work to make use stronger than we were before. Our bodies keep us safe by observing, adapting, and learning from experience. Constant assessment and adaptation to the changing effects of an infection is at the crux of our immunity. After all, this is the essence of survival.
There are powerful parallels here to how industries can design more resilient systems to inoculate against adversity.
Particularly, the world of manufacturing.

Everybody Hurts

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One of the earliest to feel the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, apart from healthcare, was the manufacturing industry. Early on, as the virus raged across through Asia — the world’s manufacturing hub — one thing was clear. Traditional manufacturing systems were not strong enough to resist the effects of black swan events like this pandemic. China’s industrial production dropped 13.5% in January and February this year compared to last year (World Economic Forum). This may not seem like a lot until you consider that no other disaster or recession has had such an impact. As the virus invaded other corners of the world, there was no difference. Nations and industries with robust contingency processes were better positioned to mitigate the effects of the virus. Ones without, unfortunately, succumbed to the trappings of their fragile systems. Global PMIs, or Purchasing Managers’ Indices, took a huge hit. In the United States, a National Association of Manufacturers’ survey revealed 53% of manufacturers anticipated a change to their businesses in the upcoming months. Production in the EU’s automotive industry has practically halted — it makes up 7% of the GDP. One of the main issues is that the global pandemic raised demand for essential items while lowering the need for non-essentials. This is comparable to how our bodies when faced with danger. Our immune systems put all non-essential processes on pause and focus on making antibodies and other critical molecules. To adapt to the change in demand, manufacturers intensified production of vital products. However, several stopped short, compromised on product functionality, or were not as responsive as they could have been — if their systems were built to offer stronger immunity against adverse events.

Manufacturing Compromises

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Take the case of Tesla CEO, Elon Musk versus the Governor of California. Tesla CEO, Elon offered to manufacture and send over 1,000 ventilators for Coronavirus patients. After underestimating the complexities of medical device manufacturing, Elon then offered design expertise. But the need of the hour was agility to mass-produce ventilators, not a new design. Tesla ended up buying machines that were not ventilators and supply them to the hospitals. The saga continues. Other stalwarts of the American automobile industry have mobilized their factories to make medical equipment, masks, and other essentials. Ford and GE partnered with a small medical device manufacturer, Airon to produce ventilators. General Motors and Xerox are also re-configuring their assembly lines and processes to make medical equipment. In Britain, carmaker McLaren is redesigning simpler ventilators to produce them. In India, Mahindra, Tata Motors, and others are also figuring out how to manufacture ventilators and meet patient demand. All these ventilators are not the high-functioning versions available on the market pre-pandemic. They are simpler models re-designed for automobile manufacturers to manufacture with ease. While efforts to step up and offer support during a global crisis are impressive, we do notice compromises that had to be made to overcome intrinsic systemic challenges.

Survival of the Fittest

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
- Unknown but attributed often with Charles Darwin
We observed 3 key obstacles that manufacturers had to overcome to manufacture essential items:
  1. ‘Big Manufacturing’ could not immediately adapt processes to produce ventilators and other essentials. They had to partner up with medical device manufacturers. This delay cost us valuable time in the battle against the Coronavirus.
  2. Ventilators had to be re-designed or simplified to their core elements before manufacture.
  3. Producing essential goods in industries that bank on manual labor is like walking a tightrope. How do you mass-produce necessary goods while keeping employees safe? Coronavirus outbreaks have already affected the American meatpacking and food processing industry. All factories need to keep a tight grip on safety protocols to prevent infection.
While immediate danger calls for quick innovations, true strength-building lies in the aftermath.
This applies to our bodies fighting infection or industries trying to survive in a crisis. This pandemic lends significant opportunity to reflect upon renovating legacy systems for endurance. How can we weave in threads of resiliency through our manufacturing systems to ensure long-term sustainability?

An Eye for Change

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There are a few popular misconceptions that may be holding back the $160 billion industrial automation industry. Addressing these issues holds the key to building immunity against future calamities.

An outsider’s perception of a modern-day factory vs. real life

One may imagine a line of advanced and efficient robots employed in assembling cars or other products. But the ground reality involves much more manual labor for simple tasks. This is only because automation today, doesn’t allow robot arms to “see” and “learn” as they go. Need to pick an item out of a bin of items? Manual labor. Fix a screw in place and turn it? Manual labor. Handle dynamic objects like wires or cables? Manual labor.

More people does not signify higher productivity or a better economy

This is another urban legend that adaptable automation can address while crisis-proofing the economy.
We need to design automation systems with resilience in mind to prevent a breakdown during the next crisis.
Several countries are already beginning to think along these lines. Mark Cuban, a prominent American billionaire, called for more automation and sophisticated robotics to safeguard American manufacturing. China is ramping up robot deployment in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. India is working on robotics to help in the healthcare space.
In rushing to deploy robots, the main issue remains unaddressed.
Automation’s predicament is that even advanced robots can only do very simple tasks, such as:
  • picking up very specific items and placing them in a particular pre-programmed location, and
  • moving around in a pre-programmed fashion to disinfect or clean.
There is still a strong need for robots that can see, learn, and grow. Investing in them will build our economic immunity and boost our chances of survival.
“Government systems suffer from two weaknesses. They are complex. And they are slow. We need to change this. Our systems need to be made sharp, effective, fast, and flexible…”
— Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi
The same can be said of manufacturing and global supply chain systems. It’s time to rebuild — for greater immunity against future crises.
After COVID-19: Manufacturing Needs to Boost Its Immunity was originally published in cynlr on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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