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By David Warne, Regional Service Manager, ABB Motion

Even prior to the global pandemic, manufacturing was experiencing a shift in operations. Large production plants and long assembly lines, where goods were mass produced in hundreds and thousands, no longer meet the needs of consumers, and in a COVID environment, are not practical for social distancing regulations.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities for the manufacturing sector to grow and adapt to the new operating environment. We are witnessing a growing demand for products customised to the needs of individual end customers. This requires new technology that is transforming manufacturing as we know it.

Humans and machines are working together in ever closer collaboration. Virtual reality tools support decisions and facilitate access to information in applications as diverse as field maintenance and product design.

Industry can now quickly produce millions of goods, in smaller and smaller batch sizes, without compromising on quality or productivity. This transformation is possible in a data-driven digital ecosystem powered by connected devices and solutions that maximise the potential from existing infrastructure.

Simply put, the digital transformation of businesses allows us to capitalise on the benefits of digital tools such as smart sensors, cloud computing and the Internet to add value to existing manufacturing processes.

Turning COVID challenges into opportunities

Manufacturing in South Africa has certainly felt the strain of COVID-19. According to StatsSA1, the nationwide lockdown caused manufacturing output to shrink by nearly 75% in the second quarter of 2020. Work was put on hold for social distancing purposes, and many factories saw reduced demand as some items were not allowed during the lockdown period. This is a significant fall for a sector that represents as much as 15% of South Africa’s GDP.

However, in terms of digital transformation, COVID has provided an unprecedented opportunity for the manufacturing sector to upgrade and increase resilience. This is especially important as COVID will continue to be a concern for some time, at least until a vaccine is widely available.

A recent McKinsey survey of manufacturing and supply-chain professionals found that 93% plan to invest in technologies that increase supply chain resilience and 90% plan to invest in talent for digitisation. Because of the pandemic, companies have clearly seen the need to invest in industrial automation, data analytics, and industrial internet of things (IOT) and are making necessary upgrades to ensure the safety of their workforce that they may not have considered for decades without this catalyst.

Building a digital ecosystem

In a world of ever-growing complexity and competition, digitalisation can offer a quick boost to the productivity of industrial equipment. A simple change such as installing a sensor on heat-sensitive machines, like welding robots, can help an operator to track temperature variations to ensure that the optimum temperature is maintained for the most flawless result. Gaining increased transparency of processes in a factory not only increases productivity, but helps to save significant resources as there are fewer unplanned outages and the potential to increase lifecycles and decrease power consumption.

Of course, the greatest value of the digital transformation of industries can be achieved when every piece of equipment along the value chain is connected, be it directly on the shop floor or through Industrial IoT. Digitally connected assets that understand the information being passed around the shop floor can interact autonomously, lending a whole new dimension of efficiency and autonomy to industries. An additional advantage for staff is that they no longer need to interact in close quarters, thus reducing the risk of spreading illness on the shop floor and helping employees to feel safer at work.

Digital transformation in real-time

A digital transformation of its own kind is happening in industrial services. Advanced monitoring solutions, such as ABB Ability Connected Services, are helping companies monitor their assets in many sites on one system. Connected Services applied to ABB’s robots can help businesses monitor the condition of their fleet, diagnose anomalies, remotely operate them, help plan maintenance schedules by prioritizing the hardest working robots and provide a backup management so as to enable easy and fast recovery from a systems crash or from unwanted changes.

The global pandemic has forever shaped the future of work for the industrial sector. Digital transformation is key to creating a safe and profitable industrial work environment. Enhancing efficiency and productivity, reducing unwanted incidents and creating a more reliable manufacturing process using digital transformation ultimately reduces the consumption of resources and helps build a more sustainable manufacturing process. We are at a point in time where we have come to understand that digitalization is not just a passing fad or a privilege of large companies, but a fundamental element of the future of industries.