Digitization: Need of the hour post-covid world


Covid-19 has sent shockwaves through the economy and the manufacturing sector has possibly been the worst hit. Plant closures and production stoppage during the nationwide lockdown period has made it challenging for even the most established businesses to keep their financial wheels turning. Now, as the country makes a calibrated exit from lockdown, the manufacturing sector is struggling with several challenges, including labour and material shortage, broken supply chain, absence of demand and cash flow shortage.

Given this, many experts are stressing that manufacturing organizations have no choice but to adopt automation and digital technologies to reduce dependence on human labour and meet social-distancing imperatives. Automation and digital technologies are no longer just ‘good-to-have’ to drive business innovation. These technologies are now key to business survival and could prove to be extremely important in helping organizations become more resilient to future exigencies. 

Engineering Review spoke to industry leaders to get an insight into how automation and digital technology adoption can help the manufacturing sector in combating challenges posed by Covid-19 crisis and the future trends to watch out for. Excerpts:  

Automation key for survival and damage limitation

Rajesh Nath- Managing Director, German Engineering Federation
Rajesh Nath- Managing Director, German Engineering Federation (VDMA)

Rajesh Nath- Managing Director, German Engineering Federation, (VDMA), India Office

COVID-19 has not only proved a threat to life but has caused unprecedented shock to the global economy. The pandemic hit manufacturers in an unexpected and unprecedented way. For the first time in modern manufacturing history, demand, supply and workforce are affected globally at the same time. The spread of virus has resulted in plant closures (full or partial) in many countries, halting production for prolonged periods, resulting in huge losses and loss of jobs. The virus has highlighted various critical gaps in the manufacturing sector. Companies need to build their business continuity plans afresh, need to review the existing manufacturing supply chain models and explore automation possibilities to reduce the impact of this crisis on production lines in the future.

While in the pre-crisis era, automation was viewed as a means to innovate, reduce cost and gain a competitive  edge, now the purpose has shifted to survival and damage limitation. To mitigate global supply chain risks for future crises, manufacturers will consider bolstering their in-house capabilities instead of outsourcing manufacturing to other countries. The pandemic will intensify the need to automate. In fact, the focal point in this drive to automate would be especially in jobs that have the 5D factor—dull and repetitive, difficult and complex, dangerous and hazardous, dirty and polluting and the new dimension of distancing and safety.

Need to take ‘baby steps’ towards automation

Although, the degree of adoption may vary depending on the industry and the readiness of the companies to make huge investments at this time, the COVID-19 crisis has certainly acted as a catalyst in the transition to automation, especially in building resilience among businesses for future disruptions.

The need of the hour is to adopt “baby steps” in automation which can generate a faster Return on Investment (ROI) and can be implemented without high capital expenditure. Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and Robotics would drive businesses to help manufacturers to produce quality products at a better cost and through that to give them the competitive edge to progress and prosper in these challenging times. The important role of automation in manufacturing is here to stay and the journey to enhance automation and robotics in the reboot phase is just beginning.

No choice but to adopt automation

shashwata duttta
Shashwata Dutta, Managing Director, Mecc Alte India Pvt Ltd, Pune

Shashwata Dutta, Managing Director, Mecc Alte India Pvt Ltd.

Covid-19 has brought a major disruption in the industry. Due to fear of infection, a significant part of the migrant workforce has gone to their native place. They will try to find employment nearby and hence many workers might never come back to their original place of work. This has created uncertainty in the availability of skilled labour. The local workmen are likely to take advantage of this situation and are likely to demand more pay for the same work.

Despite the repeated chants of unemployment, getting the rightly skilled workforce is always an issue which any manufacturer has to deal with. The souring relations with China have added a new dimension to this problem. The import of many low-cost Chinese products will become difficult and India will have no choice but to produce indigenously or buy from the West at higher prices. Add to this the coming rise in labour demand as many companies will shift their manufacturing bases from China in the foreseeable future.
All this will create the most fertile ground for Digitization and Automation in the coming months. As it appears, the Indian industry will not be left with any choice but to adopt automation, going forward.

High-technology driven ambience will force entrepreneurs to think big
The influx of world-leading companies with the latest technology will be a major reason for all Indian companies to go for automation. These companies will bring in their supply chain to India and create the right environment for Industrial growth in India. We have the examples of automobile companies like Suzuki, Volkswagen, Hyundai that have gone for automation even in the past.

This will help in creating a high-technology driven ambience across the manufacturing industry and force our entrepreneurs to start thinking Big and thereby go for automation.

Going forward, the uncertainties of the market will not go away any time soon. Our manufacturing set-up has to be capable of delivering a complex product mix and volume to satisfy the customer. While we worry about the high initial costs of automation, we often forget the huge advantage of Dynamic and Flexible manufacturing capacity that we get. Automation gives us this advantage of flexibility as there is very little fixed labour cost. And the labour requirements are highly de-skilled as the most complex and repetitive operations are performed by automatic equipment. In today’s world, the customer also wants a Zero-Defect product. And the best way to achieve it is through automation.

With India gradually starting to become the manufacturing hub, the early adopters will be largely from the industries with high global demand. Practically every such industry will find it viable to go for automation as demand picks up. Electronics, automobile and machinery, agriculture, food, pharma and chemicals could lead the way, but others could follow closely.

Covid-19 fast-tracking adoption of technology already on the way

Dileep Miskin, Director, ULESSPL(Aucotec-India) and Olaf Streit, Executive Sales Director Asia-Pacific @ AUCOTEC
Dileep Miskin, Director, ULESSPL(Aucotec-India) and Olaf Streit, Executive Sales Director Asia-Pacific @ AUCOTEC

Olaf Streit, Executive Sales Director Asia-Pacific @ AUCOTEC
Dileep Miskin, Director, ULESSPL (Aucotec-India)

Digitization has recently become significantly more important. This dire Covid-19 pandemic is a driving force for digitization as the ability to work consistently in a globally distributed manner on a joint project & a web-based overview of project progress for everyone responsible are more important than ever. These are the basic principles of AUCOTEC’s platform Engineering Base (EB), which are particularly relevant in times of compulsory working from home allowing to have the Collaborative, Multitasking & Multidiscipline working on the Engineering solution.

Need for collaboration and streamlined processes will drive digitization
Some of the current work scenarios & team collaboration technologies will be much more important even in the post COVID era compared to the past. The need for better organization, streamlined processes and tracking of work progress to be always up-to-date are the key factors that will drive the usage of digitization. Paper & other conventional formats, even proprietary CAD formats will be replaced as the density of information doesn’t match what is requested for reliable decisions. It will just speed up things which are already “on-the-way”. The modern era will see the entire plant documentation as built on mobile platform as supported by EB & enabled to write markups on the documentation which allows the field teams not to worry to have up-to-date documentation.

Digital transformation will help companies stay agile and relevant

Saravanan Panneer Selvam, General Manager, Grundfos India
Saravanan Panneer Selvam, General Manager, Grundfos India

Saravanan Panneer Selvam, General Manager – INDO Region, Grundfos

COVID-19 has created new opportunities for organizations to implement digital strategies and quickly adopt intelligent and automated technologies. This digital transformation will help companies stay agile and relevant in the post-COVID world. Several planned investments are being made currently to accelerate this transformation.

Grundfos is one of the first companies to launch electronic or E-pumps and the first manufacturer to integrate IoT not only in our pump solutions but also in various steps involved in manufacturing. We have always prioritized technology driven innovation. We will continue to invest in such technologies in order to improve the efficiency, user friendliness and sustainability of our solutions.

We believe that this rapid adoption of technology will also be primarily reflected in manufacturing processes and supply chains coherently. Industry 4.0 technologies such as IoT can be used to mitigate some of the COVID associated risks on the supply chain. For example, data from the IoT integrated sensors can indicate the effectiveness of a manufacturing process. They are being used to track parts and products at various stages of the supply chain, predict critical failure, improve transparency and accountability.

Automation and digitization will help restore manufacturing to normal levels

Arpita Garud Founder, Managing Director, Giftwala
Arpita Garud Founder, Managing Director, Giftwala

Arpita Garud Founder, Managing Director, Giftwala

Post Covid-19 it is expected that many of the processes will change to adapt social distancing and other aspects. Looking at the availability of the skilled manpower and reliability, automation and digitization is the solution for all of us. This will definitely help to get back faster to normal manufacturing levels. The technology to adopt should also align with the customer expectations. In the environment of uncertainties like Covid-19 and limited availability of skilled labour and higher maintenance costs, producers should consider digital offerings to maintain competitiveness. Digital is said to have an impact on the manufacturing industry’s value chain, workforce, associated industries and environment due to various initiatives like automation, integrated enterprise and platforms and digitally enabled workforce.

Automation of the critical process will reduce the reliance on human capital and reduce an organization’s employees’ exposure to occupational health and safety risks. Technology will not only assist producers to reduce operational downtime but also incur the lower costs of pre-emptive maintenance as opposed to repairs and rectifications.

The lockdown has presented an opportunity to achieve new digital milestones

Ravichandran Purushothaman, President, Danfoss India (India Region)
Ravichandran Purushothaman, President, Danfoss India (India Region)

Ravichandran Purushothaman, President, Danfoss India
(India Region)

The Covid-19 pandemic and associated safety considerations have brought about a series of changes, impacting the manufacturing industry. The nation-wide lockdown that lasted over two months had resulted in production lines and supply chain lines coming to a complete halt, impacting businesses irreparably.

The lockdown also presented us with an opportunity to quickly adapt to continuing business operations through digital mediums, thereby helping us to achieve new digital milestones & also create new virtual successes that were unthinkable before.

Under the present circumstances, we envision the transition towards complete digitalization & automation across segments and throughout the supply chain to be accelerated significantly, thus enabling enhanced efficiency in manufacturing and a significant reduction in carbon footprint.

The lockdown has caused extreme stress on food infrastructure and brought to fore the fault lines in the state of infrastructure in India. Bearing this in mind, the industries that are likely to see the fastest adoption of these technologies are the infrastructure and food processing industry.

In the Food/Cold Chain industry, for instance, we already have customer requests for digital technologies & solutions which could help them operate their facilities from home. Digital Agriculture with the slew of policy reforms by the Government will help fast track our developments by at least five years.

Going forward, Danfoss’ focus will be on building robust systems which will enable high levels of preparedness and resilience in the wake of unanticipated hurdles that might be encountered. The key to facing unpredictable situations is to develop business agility and evolve a ‘new normal’ for ourselves which will be defined by an effective synthesis between traditional and newly emerging business models. And the new normal requires new behaviours from us – a new Green Restart!