It has been a strategic priority of rich nations over the last century to create a high-quality manufacturing sector, to develop national wealth, power, and foster economic growth. From the emergence of England as a powerhouse in the 19th century, to the rise of the US, Germany, Japan and the USSR in the 20th, to the more recent industrializing countries like China, Korea and Taiwan, manufacturing has been the key to prosperity. For the Indian manufacturing business, the government’s call for “Atamanirbhar Bharat” is well-aligned with the spirit of ‘think global, act local’, as the country seeks to push for self-reliance alongside a strong commitment to the global welfare.
Taking a step back in time, we realize that it isn’t enough to simply have factories and produce more goods, instead the means of production is what remains the key to power. This brings us to the question, will the next transformation in manufacturing be led by what’s digital? Smart manufacturing will not only help boost domestic consumption of locally manufactured products but also create a resilient supply chain that would eventually link with global value chains.
Unclear economic benefits, and insufficient technology infrastructure are some of the key impediments to the adoption of digital manufacturing in India. And it is not surprising, considering the complexities of integrating hardware, software, data infrastructure, digital systems, and decision intelligence capabilities into large machinery. Additionally, innovation and investment remain subdued due to limited awareness and apprehension about the impact that they can achieve through targeted investments in technology. The novel coronavirus has also added to this dilemma, forcing companies to rethink their business models, including workforce safety and supply chain movement.
Intelligent manufacturing and reinventing business value chain
As social distancing becomes the norm, manufacturers will have to brace themselves for a ‘new reality’ that will bring a fundamental shift in the way shop floors are run and workforce will be managed. Businesses will need to adopt a ‘digital first approach’ that will include leveraging connected technologies such as the IoT and cloud computing that transform every touchpoint into a sensor, providing real-time business insights. Leveraging predictive analytics that automate data collection processes, can help manufacturers develop a better understanding of how systems works and thus make informed administrative decisions on the go about demand forecast and flexible manufacturing of the products that the customers want. This can enhance productivity, inventory management and aid in creation of superior quality products, all while keeping human errors and costs low. Additionally, the advancements in analytical techniques based on statistical modelling and Machine Learning powered algorithms can help in analysing the vast amount of data and develop actionable insights to target higher levels of performance on the shop floor.
Another technology that is already creating waves in the industry is additive manufacturing or what is largely popular as 3D printing. As the current crisis has revealed, 3D printing has emerged as a valuable resource for emergency production of healthcare products. Its application has also demonstrated product mix as a value lever, with industry wide collaborations by apparel makers to luxury goods producers to quickly manufacture medical components and protective gear for health workers, on a large scale. Furthermore, by leveraging technologies such as 3D printing and robotics, alongside traditional practices, businesses can automate many complex manufacturing processes. This can facilitate reshoring of operations and reducing dependence on multiple resources that could lead to sudden disruption of business value chains, in case of a future pandemic or natural disasters.
This is also an opportunity to rethink employee skilling and the human machine collaboration. Enterprises should, therefore, actively pursue assistive technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Technology (AT) to transform employee operations, while pursuing diversification and growth. For example, using VR software on computer aided designs, product developers can make modifications during the product design stage or using AR devices such as electronic glasses, businesses could train workers on how to perform a task, thus enabling them to perform skilled tasks. Sophisticated and industry 4.0 innovations such as Blockchain, AI based solutions and ERP technology can help manufacturers identify possible disruptions, including inventory, warehousing, suppliers, vendors, while bots and gamification of experiences can enhance engagement with customers and channel partners.
As is true of any disruption, the ongoing pandemic will have a long-lasting impact on the manufacturing industry. While there is no denying the tragic human cost and the unimaginable economic damage resulting from this crisis, it is perhaps the right time for us to step back and take a different perspective of what is unfolding and accelerate adoption of digitalisation to spur us on towards a better, meaningful and sustainable world.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.