Future-Proofing Production: Lessons from COVID’s Impact on Manufacturing

April 20, 2020 | 4 min read

Marcus Behrendt, Partner, BMW i Ventures

Now is the perfect time to automate. It’s bold advice, as so many in the sector grapple with uncertain futures – and to be sure, the future is indeed uncertain for all of us in manufacturing. But if your uncertainty is around when and not if your factory will reopen and production will kick off again, now is the time to make important changes that will take your manufacturing operations from vulnerable to immune as we brace for the next inevitable disruption.

So often, manufacturers have well thought through plans as to when they’ll automate elements of their production line. They know it’s a sound investment in the future and an opportunity to reduce costs, increase output and optimize quality, representing returns that can be harvested down the road, but the cost of shutting down production to deploy next generation automation means missing out of harvesting more immediate returns. So, they wait.

But now, with day-to-day business at a standstill, there’s never been a better time to future-proof manufacturing through modernization – and there’s never been a better example in context of the myriad ways next generation automation can protect manufacturers from increased exposure when disaster does hit.

Future-Proofing Production

Anything that’s true of the benefits of intelligent and flexible automation in normal circumstances is doubly true now: it enables more efficiency, lowers cost, increases output and quality – and importantly, it lowers reliance on manual labor. In a crisis like the one we’re all experiencing now, the more self-sufficient manufacturing processes are, the less they’ll be affected by unexpected changes in circumstance, such as a sudden shift in the availability of the workforce.

As we all talk about Industry 4.0 nowadays, we should also start thinking about Automation 4.0. Automation in the past might have been independent of labor-related influences, but it was, and still is, far from flexible. It was quite an effort to adapt to changes when needed. But there are new possibilities in automation when it’s powered by software – it offers more dynamic, flexible lines, with changeovers that happen at the touch of a button, as exemplified by the technology of one of our portfolio companies, Bright Machines. This software-defined approach to manufacturing enables a more agile response to demand. As we’re seeing in real-time as manufacturers work to shift their factory floors to address not only shifting consumer demands, but the pressing needs of healthcare providers, the ability to quickly reconfigure a production line cannot be undervalued.

Solving for Supply Chain Complexities

Those in the electronics manufacturing industry will remember well the impact that the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 had on the global supply chain. That was one localized crisis, but it had massive global repercussions. Now, we’re dealing with a global outbreak that’s affecting every place, every nation. But it presumably strikes at different times with differing severity, making the recovery for supply chains completely unpredictable.

The case for scalable, intelligent automation solutions that enable more localized production has never been clearer – and in fact, this has been a discussion point for OEMs well before COVID became a household name. I’m optimistic that supply chains will show resilience and that going forward, the concept of decentralized, localized production will come into clearer focus for manufacturing as an industry. What we’re quickly learning is that shipping products around the globe to save a penny today, might not pay off in these times of crisis.

It’s always been a concern for OEMs, especially in complex situations like auto manufacturing, that the complexity of the supply chain will lead to issues when a group of suppliers hasn’t planned well enough for the unexpected, and that the production cycle will be thrown off. The more manufacturers throughout the supply chain are able to better prepare themselves and their lines through implementing flexible, smart automation, the more likely they’ll be able to weather any storm, whether it’s a tsunami, a pandemic, or a trade war.

The Time to Automate Is Now

There are of course some who won’t be able to weather this particular storm; it’s a tough time for the world, and those in manufacturing aren’t exempt. That said, if you are confident in your future, I urge you to consider seeing this downtime as the perfect time to rethink your approach and move forward with next generation automation plans.

The bottom line: anyone who invests in software-defined automation now – while production allows, because of unforeseen downtime – will be ready to answer the call when things do return to normal, whatever that new normal might look like.

Stay safe!

About the Author

Marcus Behrendt is Partner at BMW i Ventures and serves on the boards of Mapiliary and DSP Concepts. He is also an active member of Nauto’s Strategic Council. Prior to joining BMW i Ventures in August 2018, Marcus was the Vice President User Experience, Control Panels, Ergonomics at BMW Vehicle Development in Munich. Before Marcus joined BMW he worked as Head of European Operations at JD Power and at Daimler Chrysler AG, and Herlitz PBS in strategic roles. Marcus earned a Dipl.-Ing. degree from the University of Berlin in Management and Engineering.

This article originally appeared on ManufacturingGlobal.com

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