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Issues Facing Manufacturers in Pandemic's Second Year

Bill Koenig
By Bill Koenig Senior Editor, SME Media

Manufacturing was forced to adjust last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plants had temporary shutdowns. New safety procedures were implemented.

Since then, some industries recovered quicker than others. Overall, the manufacturing economy has been expanding.

Still, COVID-19 issues remain with the pandemic in its second year.

Adam Aguzzi, vice president of manufacturing at Ceridian, talked to SME Media about how industry dealt with the coronavirus in 2020 and continuing pandemic issues facing manufacturing.

Adam Aguzzi, vice president of manufacturing at Ceridian

The questions and answers have been edited to make them more concise.

QUESTION: When the pandemic began, did anybody really think it would last this long?

AGUZZI: No, not at all. When manufacturing thought about it, I think there was even a hesitation to shut down at first thinking that it would probably be a couple weeks. And I think we remembered that even Elon Musk with the Tesla facilities, was only willing to accept maybe a one to two-week shutdown overall, in total. And to let alone be here a year later.

So, the first couple of weeks were probably the most difficult when people had to think up a new way to adapt to the pandemic. It really wasn't really sinking in until a couple of months in what needed to be done in order to keep the factory going while still respecting social distancing and other requirements.

QUESTION:  So, once the realization set in, what were some of the main adjustments that began to take place?

AGGUZI:  There was actually the production floor and how they managed people.  You had shift review meetings. We've heard stories about how Amazon did that at their distribution centers. And how do you have your shift review meetings? How do you pass communications on to your employees without having them standing shoulder to shoulder on a production floor?

And really what ended up happening there was the way we use technology to communicate with employees, rather than standing around the shift review board, or talking one-on-one on the production floor, mouth to ear.

How do we use internal social media to kind of communicate what's happening with the company, production stats, things that we're communicating one on one? And then for the back-office staff, the ones that are doing, let's say accounting, payroll, elements that could be removed from the premises without affecting operations of the facility, those are the ones that started really embracing let's say the Skype work from home, Skype, Zoom, Teams, whatever system they wanted to use where you now could still work as a group.

So being able to access that remotely was still a possibility. For the companies that didn't have that option, because they were still heavily paper and pen-based, they realized there needed to be a substantial digital transformation effort, even in the back office, moving away from any kind of paper tools. Because that limited the way of even having remote or hybrid work.

QUESTION: How do you make long-lasting, ongoing change?

AGGUZI: I think it really comes down to culture change. I spent personally a long time as a management consultant doing cultural change projects. A lot of those process changes required onsite premise involvement.

So, we've gone from 30-40 years of lean initiatives. We were heavily focused on integrating people on site. And now we're asking them to use the same problem-solving technique, that same mindset, but remove the in-person element as much as possible and make it part of the company.

Because, as we were saying, how long the epidemic has been going on and how long he will continue to go on, at least for this year until the vaccinations are distributed. So, having a company embrace these things, especially in manufacturing, which is known as really applying that onsite premise, onsite presence.

I think it really needed to trickle down to manufacturing. Kind of what would have happened in the rest of the industry came to manufacturing. They realized the importance of what was going on. And then, but the demand was still up.

So the ability to supply these goods couldn't shut down your facility, couldn't adapt to online-only format for manufacturing, you really need to have people at work doing this. And it kind of accelerated the transition to manufacturing 4.0 with how we integrate with people, technology, with people. So, there has always been that move for digital transformation over the last couple of years.

That five-year, 10-year plan has now become a one to two-year plan. How do I get away from paper and pen tools? How do I communicate with my employees? How do I engage with them in better ways, especially since there's a lot of social distancing going on? How do I make them feel valued? And part of that is continuing to invest in traditional elements like skills, building up their skills, building up their involvement, allowing them to have tools that they need to get the job done.

But other elements that came out of this pandemic. How do I work and give them information that's readily available remotely, personalized, on-demand? And that's where a lot of technology kind of fills that gap that we weren't expecting to really be rolled out for five to 10 years. And then it kind of opened up the door to other technologies as well.

As people struggled sometimes financially through the pandemic, they had to take two weeks off, often unpaid, depending on the jurisdiction, to quarantine or being ill with COVID. Solutions like the Dayforce Wallet, which is on demand payment solution, where employees are able to get paid on demand, they don't have to wait for the next payday. They can be paid at the end of their shift or even hour-to-hour.

Being able to utilize those funds in emergencies, as quick as possible without having to go to credit cards and other credit sources. This is the money they earned. And allowing that kind of technology to go through the economy really quickly, allowing people to access that when they're in need of cash, especially with the ups and downs of the pandemic caused.

QUESTION:  Now that we have a track record of operating in the pandemic, what are some of the adjustments that may happen going forward? Where do we go from here?

AGUZZI:  I think we build up a lot of momentum for how we can re-envision how the factory works, and how companies in general, through the economy can work. That a lot of the past that we thought were required to be in-person simply because a person that needs to be at a site, the 9:00 to 5:00

And how do we re-envision those roles to be more efficient? And the best way to become more efficient at a lot of these roles such as payroll department, HR department, accounting, even research and development or engineering, elements where you don't actually have to have a physical presence on a product day-to-day, is how do we think, what tools will help us evolve as a company beyond lean and lean operations, traditionally?

Investing in the digital transformation, investing in digitizing our tools. Because it's preparing ourselves mentally to be flexible. The less flexible a company is coming out of the pandemic, the less they are able to compete. So, the ability to either compete with the next crisis by adapting, by having tools that are flexible, will prepare those companies.

Looking at the latest generation of software and tools available outside of let's say robotics. Robotics are very interesting, and there's a lot of elements there that still just require a cloud-based platform that allow people to work remotely and more efficiently at the same time. And then just re-envisioning the work process.

One thing we've noticed is that shift trading was very rare in manufacturing. It's something that's very common in, let's say, other industries such as retail. But in manufacturing, there's been a lot of resistance to it traditionally due to the time involved to understand the diversity of the roles involved in manufacturing, and how do you do shift trading with that?

So, changing our mindset was something as simple as shift trading. How do we shift, so that people can be more flexible, picking up their children from daycare, other personal requirements, especially in a pandemic situation, and turning that into an automated process that isn't onerous, that isn't difficult to maintain has really come into focus with something that we need to have going forward.

QUESTION: What are we doing now that will continue doing thanks to the pandemic?

AGUZZI:  I think we are going to continue to see our hybrid work, work environment for back-office staff. The ability to cut down on office space and still have that efficiency improvement of people working on tasks remotely, not having to spend time transitioning to factories. That's only for the back-office staff.

We are starting to embrace technologies in ways that were not considered traditional in manufacturing, such as internal social communications. The ability to set that up for employees, so they're able to access it on mobile devices, which are have often been discouraged in manufacturing.

Embracing the mobile device, embracing people to access information remotely, on-demand, personalized, in an environment. Other industries may have embraced that earlier, but now manufacturing has an opportunity to really grab on to that and run. And then the final element I think that would have changed, is just thinking outside the box. What are the business processes that are not straightforward? Like filling out a form digitally. We’ve known that that's been on the horizon for digital transformation.

Thinking what other tools are out there to really change the way we do business as a manufacturer, in terms of how we work with our employees and train them, bring them up to speed. How do we handle training? It kind of opens the floodgates to all these other possibilities about what tools we can bring into manufacturing. And not hypothetical tools. It's nice to see that sometimes we see illustrations of how HoloLens would work or virtual reality training would work. Those are very good, but they're pretty far out for most manufacturers.

There's a lot of other tools, such as robust scheduling, that are enabled by modern technology, especially cloud-based, that are easier to implement. They're much more straightforward to implement. But the benefits for both the workers and the employer become significant by just implementing a new tool to replace an old process.

All of this basically comes down to, how do we work with our employees in manufacturing 4.0 versus let's say manufacturing 2.0? The old process. People come to work, they fill out paper sheets, they go about their business, they go home, they clock in by hand.

How do we change that process to be much more personalized, employee-centric, and how do we take all of that, to also improve employee engagement, ultimately? So they feel like they're being valued. Which is a very big challenge, especially during the pandemic.

QUESTION: Is there anything you'd like to add?

AGGUZI:   I think one thing I want to focus on in general is that it's everything that we've been doing for 10 years, that was a focus, that was kind of like backburner, process improvement, really needs to be done quicker.

We are going to survive this pandemic. Manufacturing is going to come out of it stronger. But it's kind of opened our eyes that there could be a future crisis that affects the supply chain, how people work, how we communicate together, and how we spend time together. And this is our opportunity to become very flexible, as a country, as an industry, in terms of how do we change, while still getting the job done at the end of the day.

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