As governments around the world reacted to COVID-19, factories and production halted. In many cases, there is great uncertainty as to when they are going to be up and running again, and what state organisations are going to be in when they do. Consequently, many manufacturers are urgently seeking ways to transform, modernise or adapt, in order to survive. As Eric Schweitzer, president of the Association of German Chambers of Industry and Commerce puts it; “Industry is in need of unconventional and immediate actions” to overcome the crisis.

In many instances, manufacturers are taking on this challenge, demonstrating innovation, ingenuity, deploying modern digital technologies and joining forces in unprecedented collaboration. Much of this progress, and the ability to keep cogs turning despite the pandemic, is due to the rise of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

The 4IR and  Industry 4.0 began over a decade ago and have since transformed the potential of many sectors. In the case of manufacturing, technology such as big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, have changed the industry, allowing businesses to reimagine every aspect of traditional production lines, factory systems and supply chains.

Industry 4.0 allows connected systems to streamline automation in a closed environment whilst the connected sensors of the Internet of Things (IoT) on every machine helps manufacturers predict, spot and solve problems in real-time, reducing production downtime. This digitisation of manufacturing has been termed ‘Smart Factories’ – production plants with connected equipment, machines, systems and personnel, designed to drive business value, efficiency and accuracy.

Smart factory definitions vary, but what defines this new paradigm in manufacturing is the ability of technology to drive responsiveness, agility, connectivity, adaptiveness and collaboration – digitally, centrally and remotely. Whilst the potential of smart factories and their ability to automate and manage production with high levels of accuracy was strong before, in the context of helping manufacturers operate during and after a global pandemic, smart factory technology could be the key to jump-starting the global economy.

Indeed, there are already many examples of manufacturing organisations that have rapidly moved to include ‘smart’ elements in order to respond to the global crisis. Smart factories are able to transform production lines to shift in response to market demand. In the case of the pandemic, demand is directly from government for ventilators, medical equipment and protective safety equipment. For example, some manufacturers completly altered their production systems to make hospital gowns instead of coats, hand sanitizer products instead of beer and ventilators instead of cars. They did so by building intelligent manufacturing ecosystems that respond to demand rapidly and efficiently all whilst taking the pressure off workforces hit by illness.

However, reconfiguring production lines to allow the factories to remain operational relies on more than flicking a simple switch. It requires thorough planning and modelling, in a very short space of time – a major task for any manufacturer. One way smart factory technology enables the rapid transformation of production systems is through the use of digital twins.

In normal circumstances, digital twin technology allows the smart factory to underpin operations so it may respond faster to changing circumstances. A digital twin allows the manufacturing facility to model its processes, workforce, assets and data within a new context before it is done in real life. Predictive analysis and artificial intelligence combine to make faster, better decisions that result in improved outcomes. This enables manufacturers to prepare for unexpected disruptions and greater flexibility in what they can produce.

For example, Formula 1 teams have been using digital twins to test car prototypes for years. Their digital cars run on digital race circuits to predict outcomes in the context of differing variables like weather, car set up, and driving style.

In the current climate of a world affected by the coronavirus, digital twin technology allows smart manufacturers to test reimagined operations and production lines to understand how they can adapt to changing demand and adapt their production lines accordingly at unprecedented speed. The technology allowed LVMH to switch their operations to make hand sanitiser for French hospitals within days of the virus hitting the US and UK, and Dyson and Babcock, Airbus and Siemens to switch production to make tens of thousands of ventilators and parts, within a month.

The game-changer that is likely to be the catalyst for widespread adoption of smart factory technology following the pandemic is the roll out of 5G. The key to achieving the potential of smart factories is the ability to seamlessly link everything together in real-time, and this is what 5G does. 5G allows manufacturers to construct custom-made, private networks that bring to life the idea of an intelligent factory.

For instance, 5G in industrial plants allows factories to become more flexible so that production lines, machines and robots become untethered, high precision ‘smart’ tools. In doing so, manufacturers are be able to create the ‘zero touch factory’- operating production systems with very little human input. This is an important feature as the coronavirus redefines social norms so that safety now means limiting human contact.

Another smart factory technology set to change manufacturing is the ‘tactile internet’ – the capability of instant, interactive communications using remote haptic (sense of touch) technologies. 5G networks offer such low latency that a worker can perform a task using robotically-assisted devices, apart from the machine – sometimes on the other side of the world. This makes it possible to work on and modify remote production lines at sites in remote or high-risk areas, or during a pandemic where human interaction must be kept at a minimum.

Another smart factory technology that is likely to see a boost in popularity post-pandemic is autonomous vehicles. COVID-19 has forced factories to review their safety measures to protect workers and automated vehicles could provide an excellent way of keeping production lines running as machines allow workers to remain apart. On public roads, there are many variables they need to predict and work around, but in the closed environment of a large industrial plant, an army of vehicles could move around easily.

The coronavirus is set to change the world we live in on many levels. Whilst we remain in the midst of the crisis, markets will eventually settle into a new, post-pandemic normal influenced by factors that have enabled economies to remain operational during the pandemic. As such, activities that enable digital restoration of economic and business activity will become era-defining. In this regard, COVID-19 is a tipping point in which the manufacturing sector embraces the long-held potential of the 4IR and Industry 4.0 and applies the technology out of necessity.


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