Industry 4.0 Surfing the Coronavirus Digitalization Transformation Wave

By Philippe Gerwill, Industry Advisor

Philippe Gerwill, Industry Advisor
Philippe Gerwill, Industry Advisor

During my keynote lecture in front of close to 2’000 people about “How 5G reframes Industrial Manufacturing” at the 16th Manufacturing International Forum in Tianjin, China mid-October 2019, I started my talk with the below Chinese proverb:

“When the winds of change blow,
some people build walls and other build windmills”

Unfortunately, that is tremendously accentuated during the actual covid19 crisis in many countries around the world and we are still witnessing much more walls than windmills building. Countries are closing borders almost without any coordination, populism and a strong push for re-location of manufacturing are emerging around the globe. There is a strong sentiment and willingness of becoming less dependent on countries like India and even more China when it comes to PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or pharmaceuticals but not only. Nevertheless we should keep in mind that bringing back for example pharmaceutical manufacturing from India or China to the US or other countries in Europe might not only be challenging from a technological point of view as we might not have the required know-how anymore or at worse never had it, but it is also bringing with it a tremendous challenge from a cost and product registration point of view. Changing a manufacturing plant including a country in the whole drug manufacturing process requires a renewed registration of every single drug in all markets and countries.

However, the covid19 pandemic triggered also a tremendous acceleration in digital transformation impacting almost every single industry and Industry and Industry 4.0 based manufacturing technology is going to surf on that digitalization transformation wave too.

The drastic protective measures from masks to complete cities or countries lockdowns including additional strict distancing measures to contain the covid19 spread have highlighted the importance of the physical contacts in our daily life. While a lot of businesses were quickly able to adjust and to revert to online business, it became quickly clear that the main challenges will be in the spaces where physical proximity, human work and manpower was the main factor. I am not saying that closing schools and move to online teaching was easy and it had quite some challenges too, from parenting and taking care of the kids to getting access to online teaching for everybody. But it was possible.

In many factories removing the human factor in the process meant stopping the production and closing the factory. No more products came out of the production line. In the meantime, most of manufacturing has resumed with mainly distancing measures in place that are quite often impacting negatively productivity and many operators are doing indeed extra hours to compensate. That situation is not sustainable on a long term and the digital transformation which was drastically accelerated during the same time through working from home, online teaching and development or meetings and webinars will move further into the heavily physical related manufacturing processes space to further reduce shop floor operators risks and exposure. Proven Industry 4.0 solutions that are already used in some industries would quickly be copied, reused and developed further in other industries. There are already very advanced technologies used for example to avoid that operators have to go out in an oil & gas plant out in the heat in the Australian desert to check tank levels, pumps or leakages. Sensor and captors are doing that even better as an operator can’t obviously see through a closed metal container or tank. Additionally, having robots replacing operators to execute heavy or dangerous task will continue to increase while moving to a more and more unmanned shop floor. That is already the case in many pharmaceutical manufacturing plants where there was a contamination risk.

Additionally, and like in the healthcare industry where the pandemic is actually generating additional vocation and attracting now even more talents, the increased challenges which will trigger a quantum leap in manufacturing technology too, are going to make factories more attractive and exciting to work in. What was long seen as a not really “sexy” space for many young talents is going to become an amazing ground for new technologies and digitalization transformation at an unprecedented pace.

Factories will be the home of billions of IoT (Internet of Things) sensors and equipment connected via close to real-time wireless 5G technology generating huge amounts of big data to feed AI (artificial intelligence) systems, ML (machine learning) and new algorithms secured by blockchain technologies to increase interoperability across manufacturing lines, factories and supply chains. In parallel AR/VR (augmented realities /virtual realities) technologies would increasingly be rolled out for training, simulation but also maintenance purposes. The convergence of all those promising new technologies in the manufacturing technology space is something which is quite unique, and which can’t be find in many other spaces at the same scale.

Industry 4.0 which started slowly already some years ago is getting really turbo charged in a way rarely seen in many companies around the globe as it becomes a question of survival. Everybody agrees that there was a life before covid19 and that there will be a life after covid19 which will be drastically different. That applies to the manufacturing space even more.