As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold around the world, it delivered a shock to the system that tested manufacturers’ ability to adapt to change. Global electronic manufacturing services (EMS) providers are quite accustomed to navigating the complexities that come with supporting thousands of customers, products and regulations. But COVID-19 presented a unique challenge, as organizations had to quickly incorporate new government and health department criteria in impacted regions to protect the health of the workforce.
This major undertaking required reevaluating every aspect of factory operations to ensure a safe working environment. Business-continuity plans had to be modified and updated to reflect regional requirements. Factory layouts had to be rearranged, machines reconfigured, and workers appropriately spaced on factory floors to ensure physical distancing. The frequency of sanitizing facilities was increased. Personnel had to change their daily work habits; begin to wear masks, gowns, shields and gloves, and undergo regular temperature checks. In some countries, only certain items considered essential, such as medical or communications products, were allowed to be produced, requiring a rerouting of resources.
This rebalancing act needed to happen very quickly, while maintaining the same level of factory output and preserving established quality and regulatory standards for production of highly regulated products.
Factories have had to adjust to a new reality. Implementing a myriad of changes so quickly has not only helped them comply with immediate needs, but has also introduced positive ways that bolster operations for the future. This environment has enabled the implementation of new practices, technologies and automation that can further mitigate the impact of the ongoing pandemic, and other unexpected circumstances that could interfere with operations.
Expect some of these major developments to occur within the next two to five years:
While the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, operational practices should continue to embrace new practices, technologies and automation at a much faster pace, to bolster execution and effectively navigate what has become the new normal. Moving to a digital factory model that employs automation is no longer a “nice-to-have” solution, but a core element of a flexible factory operation that can quickly respond and adapt to unexpected events. Robots and machines have already proved that they can take over basic production tasks. Now they’re being enhanced to perform more complex decision-making activities to ensure further continuity of operations.
In addition to providing a safer working environment, incorporating more automation and technology will elevate workers, empowering them to learn new skill sets that free them from mundane repetitive tasks on the production line. Being able to remotely tap data from connected machines and platforms will allow them to “own” their workstations, enabling data-based decisions that improve productivity and make work a much more satisfying experience.
Mulugeta Abtew is vice president of manufacturing technology development at Sanmina.
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