Just over a year in, and the ‘Roaring 20s’ look set to be a decade of digital change. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant role to play in this. The beginning of the pandemic saw organisations within all industries – from healthcare to retail, construction, and education – adopt new digital technologies in order to remain operational within increasingly tight lockdown restrictions.
Twelve months on and organisations have continued to adapt and grow, with what were once decade-long digital transformation initiatives progressing at unparalleled speed. It has even been suggested that electronics manufacturing could witness five years’ worth of development in the next 18 months – all as a result of production challenges brought about by COVID-19 (1).
The COVID-19 Industrial Revolution
COVID-19 has triggered a mini industrial revolution; albeit one with a twist. Previous industrial revolutions were largely driven by process efficiency, revenue, growth – and, ultimately, business survival – with an adoption curve that played itself out over years, even decades. In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the main short-term driver has been survival, with the time to adjust being just a matter of months. The generally increasing rate of change brought about through digitalisation has sparked a ‘commercial Darwinism’, with business adaptability at its core, rather than performance improvement.
The pandemic has served to emphasise the benefits of technology in helping manufacturers and brands to cope with fluctuations in supply and demand, enable social distancing and remote working in manufacturing sites, and to operate effectively with a significantly reduced workforce. Indeed, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, McKinsey reported that around a quarter of industry-leading manufacturing firms in Asia were fast-tracking automation programmes in order to cope with worker shortages (2).
Industry 4.0 has been at the forefront of the revolution, with manufacturers realising the benefit of automated solutions in reducing error and maximising efficiency on production lines, while cloud-based systems have emerged as a solution for real-time remote monitoring and visibility of production line performance. Video conferencing has become the norm, and we are now seeing the development of new augmented reality applications, which provide accessible remote solutions for machine installations, customer support, and product maintenance.
In a recent digital engagement report from Twilio (3), 97% of respondents stated COVID-19 had sped up their digital transformation, with some reporting that their companies’ digital communications strategies have been accelerated by up to six years. The report also suggests that, in some instances, historic barriers to digital transformation have been broken down out of necessity, including the need for executive approval; lack of time, skills, and know-how; and lack of engineering support.
The beginning of the pandemic saw companies of all kinds invest in videoconferencing tools to enable remote working and, in many sectors, to provide a safe, alternative option for face-to-face contact with customers. Existing tools, which may have previously been used for internal purposes only, have helped to bridge a gap in customer service and support. With service engineers physically unable to attend customer production lines, such applications have provided an option for remote assistance and virtual service visits for the resolution of technical issues.
In Domino’s case, virtual customer service and support have been critical during the COVID-19 pandemic, with offices across the world embracing new applications to continue customer service and support during the global lockdown.
Domino’s Indian subsidiary used audio-visual applications to carry out entire printer installations remotely, with 43 remote installations successfully completed during April and May 2020 alone. While Domino service support staff in China have provided customers with remote installations, troubleshooting, and technical support. The team has also developed online training to provide in-depth, easy-to-understand product operation instructions, so customers are better equipped to maintain equipment, identify issues, and improve production line efficiency.
As a company, Domino has also developed tools to allow customers to experience virtual product demonstrations, and laser substrate sampling – both of which are key to the customer journey. This has not only allowed the business to continue serving customers as before the pandemic but has also provided insight into the many benefits of virtual services of this kind – including time and cost savings – and led to the adoption of additional services, including remote training.
Advanced software and services
In addition to adopting existing technologies in novel ways, COVID-19 has also sped up development of app-based advanced software and services through mixed reality (MR) technology. One particular application of MR, augmented reality (AR), now has an expected market forecast of $70–$75 billion in revenue by 2023 (4).
AR mobile or web-based visual support apps have emerged, to enable service engineers to connect with customers on a production line and use video to investigate the area in question to allow for faster resolution of the issue. If a problem requires a simple fix, a customer may be guided to complete the maintenance themselves, or, in cases necessitating a site visit, an engineer can be dispatched with complete knowledge of the issue at hand.
Such applications lend themselves to more than just issue resolution; when it comes to coding and marking, the machine itself may not have a technical fault – the customer may just need to make slight adjustments to calibration. By using AR, it’s easy to see the quality of the print and advise them on how to make changes and improvements. It’s a stark change from the pre-COVID days, where matters can now be resolved, or quality improvements made, in a matter of minutes rather than days.
The realisation that automation, digital communications, and AR are able to transform how we operate has, some might argue, heralded a permanent change in mindset. Remote connectivity is now the norm, and the last year has made people aware of the many other benefits of these new technologies. In the past, customers might have been reluctant to consider remote installations – but now, with clear evidence of how much time and energy can be saved, it is likely that they will want to continue with this service as normal in the future.
As, indeed, it should be. Caterpillar has reported that 90% of failure in its equipment is preventable through regular inspections, timely service, and part wear replacement, monitored through its remote inspection app (5).
Deploying the same approach through Industry 4.0 connectivity standards and cloud-based services on production lines allows for real-time monitoring and detection of potential issues before they arise. This also creates a wealth of data – so-called data lakes – that can be further analysed to optimise operations and production line efficiency at an industry-wide scale.
Such connected services present the opportunity for industry providers to move from the traditional, reactive approach to a more proactive model, focused on maximising machine uptime and improving productivity.
The next five years?
While we all hope that the year 2020 was an anomaly, the reality is that industry has irreversibly changed. Manufacturers are now expected to be able to cope, even thrive, under volatile circumstances and it is all too clear that the technology is there to enable businesses to do just that.
From the adoption of automation and remote connectivity technologies, to the advancement of mixed and augmented-reality-based applications and services, digital transformation initiatives that were slow to take hold in the past, are now expected to accelerate. What has been achieved in the last twelve months may yet be eclipsed by the advancements of the next twelve, even six, months if the same pressures remain on manufacturers and supply chains to cope with increasing market volatility.
COVID-19 may have triggered the latest industrial revolution, but in reality, this could just as easily be considered as just an accelerant of the ongoing digitalisation revolution. One thing is for sure though, it has sent a clear message that business adaptability is key to commercial survival.
1 The Economist, “How to reopen factories after covid-19”, accessed 24th June 2020 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/04/07/how-to-reopen-factories-after-covid-19
2 McKinsey, ‘Industry 4.0: Reimagining manufacturing operations after COVID-19’, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/industry-40-reimagining-manufacturing-operations-after-covid-19#
3 Twilio, ‘Covid-19 Digital Engagement Report’, https://www.twilio.com/covid-19-digital-engagement-report
4 Supply Chain Management Review, July 2020
5 Caterpillar, ‘CAT INSPECT HITS 1 MILLION INSPECTIONS‘, https://www.caterpillar.com/en/news/caterpillarNews/customer-dealer-product/cat-inspect-million.html?