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The Unique COVID-19 Challenges Faced by Manufacturing Operations Leaders

 

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic manufacturing was one of the first industries identified as dealing with immediate problems in work stoppages, supply chain, and overall uncertainty. A study from March 2020 from the National Association of Manufacturers outlined that:

  • 78% of manufacturers expected a financial impact
  • 53% anticipated a change in operations
  • And 35% expected a disruption in the supply chain

While many industries were able to jump into a remote work setup and take their time organizing and evaluating their return to work plan, manufacturers likely only took a short pause or didn’t stop at all. This meant that logistics and operations managers in essential industries like manufacturing had to deal with workplace COVID-19 challenges on the fly with very little in terms of best practices or guidance. Here we outline some of the common hurdles the manufacturing industry has faced and how they overcame them. 

Limited Asset Clarity

Manufacturing operations leaders are constantly coordinating both internal resources like staff, equipment, and inventory, and external factors like suppliers and supply chain timelines in order to deliver goods accurately and on time. On any given day, an operations manager might lose visibility into one of these factors, like an employee calling in sick or a supplier pushing their scheduled delivery date. But during COVID-19, especially in the early days, every aspect of production was questionable. 

This uncertainty brought many organizations to consider local suppliers and accelerate plans to rely on domestic partners. It also brought on an increased investment in technology that gave company leadership more transparency into the entire supply chain.

Hiring Challenges

Finding technically-savvy job seekers with ideal skills and credentials for a manufacturing environment has been tough even in the best of years, but in 2020 it became even tougher. Manufacturing companies who needed back-up staff in case of COVID-19-related absences or needed to hire additional or replacement employees found the talent pool to be shallow. Many job seekers are opting for a work-from-home option or are hesitant about the safety of large manufacturing plants. 

Some companies found that responding to COVID-19 challenges in a decisive and safe way helped them maintain confidence with their current workforce and use it as a demonstration to job seekers that they are taking safety seriously. Stringent screening and COVID-19 safety protocols assisted in building a reputation that helped with recruiting. 

Need for Prolonged Flexibility

A prolonged period of uncertainty is always one of the greatest challenges in manufacturing, an industry set on its repetitive processes, long term scheduling, and consistent workload. With constantly changing COVID-19 regulations and legislation, supply chain fluctuations, and impossible forecasting capabilities, remaining flexible has become more important than ever. 

Multiple contingency plans, government support, long term recovery planning, and using techniques and tools available to maintain an agile workflow are some of the ways organizations have stayed focused on the future.

New Technology Adoption

The addition of new technology to help automate or gain control over workplace operations was one of the key ways manufacturers tackled many of the challenges 2020 brought about. In a recent study, 39% of manufacturers said they invested in a new supply chain management solution and 25% implemented new automation processes to address hours lost to COVID-19 work shortages. But the addition of remote monitoring and operations management software, while adding huge value to the organization, also included its own challenges. 

Like many things over the last 12 months, technology additions needed to be made quickly and full adoption was necessary without much time to prepare. While fast adoption was shown to help boost productivity by 40-70%, this was only possible for companies ready and willing to act fast. For manufacturing companies that may have a significant amount of employees without advanced technology experience, adding new tools quickly may have been off the table. 

After the past year, we are now just beginning to hear details about how some manufacturers have successfully navigated COVID-19 challenges so far, most of which has included adding automation and newer technology to their operations. This trend is likely to continue as other manufacturers now must catch up. We work every day to help businesses improve their operations with applications their employees actually want to use. If you have been waiting to get started on a new operations solution, get in touch with our experts today!