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Next-generation collaborative software should take in everyone at workplaces and not confined to groups operating within silos. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

While the entire world is battling with the uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, manufacturers are feeling the pressure more than most. Some are still running and remain at full capacity; however, changes occur daily and most aren’t even sure if they’ll be open a week from now.

Manufacturers have put various policies in place to try and limit the virus spread, such as reducing meeting sizes, banning travel, and enforcing social distancing. Many are also turning to remote working for those employees able to do so, a practice that many in the industry had not fully embraced until now.

The reality though is that manufacturing plants need to stay operational, and for that to happen, some people are needed on the plant floor. If the manufacturing plants themselves don’t remain functional, the tasks that can be completed from home will soon dry up.

As with any business, manufacturing employees – whether on the plant floor or working from home – need to stay connected to be most effective. Delaying large meetings and practising social distancing in the plant can work as a short-term stopgap, but it is not a long-term solution.

To combat the skills shortage, many manufacturers are looking to embrace Industry 4.0 ideals

- Jyoti Lalcandani at IDC

Solution is in better collaboration

The good news is that technology can be relied upon to help make collaboration easier and enable remote employees to become more effective. To this end, manufacturers need to invest in the widespread provision of collaboration tools for the entire workforce.

Crucially, when it comes to improving collaboration, it’s important to consider all functional areas — product development, supply chain and warehousing, manufacturing operations, sales and marketing, and field services. As such, manufacturers need to ensure the digital methods of communicating, working, and learning that have become commonplace among executive management are made available to the rest of the organisation.

Create the skills

Another area where manufacturers continue to struggle is finding the right employees with the right skill sets. This talent shortage is a global phenomenon and has been felt for at least a decade now, with IDC’s “Worldwide Talent Survey” revealing that operations and manufacturing are in the top three functional areas where industrial organisations are experiencing talent issues.

Collaboration skills are highly sought after for new manufacturing employees, with the results of the survey showing that the ability to collaborate within/across groups is the number one skill manufacturers are looking for to support their digital transformation efforts.

To combat the skills shortage, many manufacturers are looking to embrace Industry 4.0 ideals, a strategy that aims to drive the technology-led transformation of industrial operations, including factories, oil and gas platforms/wells, mining sites, electricity grids and generation plants.

Bring it on!

Industry 4.0 delivers digital innovation through autonomous, data-rich and insights-based operations to improve overall production performance. It aims to drive the optimal condition of people, products and processes, all underpinned by an environment of extreme efficiency, collaboration and innovation enablement.

To address this shifting landscape and make up for the widespread talent mismatch, manufacturers are increasingly investing in the automation of low-value work. Indeed, more than 60 per cent of manufacturers indicate an interest in leveraging robotic process automation (RPA) in the next two years.

While undertaking automation of any kind was once an extremely arduous task, it’s now fairly common to find robotics providers claiming that their solutions don’t require complex deployment processes and can be up and running in a matter of hours.

This is particularly true for relatively simple deployments that involve a limited number of machines working mostly in isolation from other operational and business systems. Such developments have been particularly noticeable with mobile platforms aimed at moving materials in warehouses, while the new generation of “collaborative” robots (cobots) are often similarly simple to deploy.

As manufacturers increasingly embrace these new ideals, their focus will shift to outcomes such as extreme efficiency, hyper-personalisation, and profit maximisation. As such, distributed decision-making and streamlined processes in design, creation, and execution will become essential, reaffirming once again the critical importance of enabling enterprise-wide collaboration.

- Jyoti Lalchandani is regional Managing Director at IDC.