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How much better off would U.S. be during pandemic with smart, connected manufacturing?

Ilene Wolff
By Ilene Wolff Contributing Editor, SME Media

With automakers turning out ventilators and protective face shields, brewers and distillers bottling hand sanitizer, and garment factories stitching up gowns and masks to fill a yawning gap in personal protective equipment for health care workers, the coronavirus pandemic is shining a million-watt spotlight on the critical role manufacturing plays in society.


Conrad Leiva
Director of Ecosystem and Workforce Development

That message—and the importance of smart manufacturing for the economic recovery from the pandemic—was highlighted in a March 25 installment of the Clean Energy Smart Manufacturing Innovation Institute’s (CESMII) “6° of Smart Manufacturing” webcast series, entitled, “What does smart manufacturing look like in times like these?”

“Maybe these days we’re talking about 6 feet of separation instead of six degrees,” webcast co-host Conrad Leiva, CESMII’s director of ecosystem & workforce development, said to co-host Mike Yost, who is outreach advisor to the institute.

Yost M HS copy 768x432.jpg

Mike Yost
Outreach Advisor

On a more serious note, Yost noted we are seeing signs in the industry of moving past the short-term response to the crisis, what with automakers’, spirits companies’ and garment makers’ emergency response to provide materials needed for people working and being treated in hospitals.

“They, as manufacturers, are seeing a problem and solving a problem,” Yost said.

While non-critical manufacturers are shuttered in spots by state-issued, stay-at-home orders or due to concern for employees, now is the time to think and plan for a more resilient future, Leiva said.

“What if we came out of this period of crisis and the skills gap was gone?” he said. “I know this is just a dream, but I want to highlight this is an important time to think about re-skilling and cross-training and making a significant dent in that gap.”

In addition to enhancing workers’ skills, there’s more manufacturers can plan for during this downturn in production.

Even before the pandemic, only 10 percent of companies had a long-term plan to take advantage of digital technology and smart manufacturing—even though 75 percent of them wanted to employ Industry 4.0-related measures, Leiva pointed out. He said if everyone is focusing on the short-term, those who think bigger will be the ones who move ahead of the pack.

“I think it’s more important than ever to really put plans in place not just to heal and take care of the immediate problem but that we soon, in the next few months, start putting together longer-term plans that include how we are going to ramp up,” he said. “If we don’t, it’s always going to seem like we’re running in place.”

Somewhat disheartening to Leiva was a LinkedIn message from a manufacturing association asking members about where parts, supplies and capabilities lie.

“I was thinking, really? Is this the best we have?” he said. “LinkedIn, emails, manual surveys to find the suppliers who could help? If we had a more connected supply chain with real-time information on where the capacity and capabilities are, we could respond much quicker.” 

With smart, connected manufacturing, the type of survey Leiva cited would be passé.

Yost explained why in a follow-up interview that drew from his experience in the manufacturing software realm. He offered the example of building luxury automobiles to the specifications of customers’ orders and explained that hardware and software are available to error-proof the order and ensure all of the components are delivered in sequence and on time to the manufacturer. In his example, there were 52 suppliers to the luxury vehicle maker.

“What became readily apparent is you could actually collect data from machines and use it to be effective at the operations level,” he said. “It also ties in with what you’re trying to accomplish at the supply chain and business levels. You can feed the financials, the enterprise system and the order-fulfillment system.”

Although industry has been on the path to smart manufacturing for decades—to get the right information from real-time data to make informed business decisions—there are still only isolated cases of companies using their data to drive profits and performance, Yost said. Taking his example one step further, the luxury automaker with its connected supply chain can make responsible, informed decisions about what to build when and where, including moving capacity from one facility vs. another and ramping up production to meet peak demand.

“If I have visibility everywhere, how much more effective can I be in making decisions about what I can make and where I can make it or what I can get and who I can get it from and those sorts of things?” he asked rhetorically.

Like who can quickly build ventilators and make personal protective equipment for health care workers during a pandemic.

The next installment of CESMII’s “6° of Smart Manufacturing” webcast series is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. Pacific Time on April 8.

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