Early into the pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Kearney, culled the opinions of 400+ senior-level executives from various industry sectors to identify the best response to the COVID-19 crisis. Five imperatives emerged from the survey that remain highly relevant as we think about the future of manufacturing:

  1. Rapid tailoring of manufacturing and supply systems to changing consumer behaviours
  2. Agile manufacturing and supply system set-ups enabled by advanced technologies
  3. Logistics coordination across and within global value chains
  4. Adoption of new ways of working and governing to increase manufacturing resilience
  5. Shared responsibility and collaboration among companies and authorities to address social and environmental challenges

These motivations will help drive the factory of the future. Manufacturers need transparency (into their own operations and the operations of their suppliers), tighter (and quicker) coordination with their supply chain, and the ability to more quickly evaluate data (and respond accordingly). Connected factories will facilitate each of these. Connected factories will provide a systematic way of collecting and sharing data throughout the entire supply chain in near real-time. Real-time information sharing across equipment and plants will also help automate decisions based on incoming information so there is an interactive element to connected factories, that feeds on itself. We aren’t there yet, but there are a number of ingredient technologies that are coming together now to push this transformation forward. 5G being one of the key ones. Drones. Autonomous vehicles. Cheap sensors. Analytics. They are all coming together in the years ahead.

In March I wrote about the impact COVID was going to have on new product introduction (NPI). Google delayed the release of its new Pixel smartphone by several months. The newest iPhone line-up was a month later this year. And last week Ford announced they would be delaying next year’s Bronco launch. So even some of the biggest, most capable companies couldn’t escape the impact of COVID. As I wrote about in March, one of the biggest issues from COVID was the impact travel bans would have on NPI:

Electronics manufacturers in the OEM supply chain would generally prepare for NPIs by traveling several times to visit input suppliers in the lead-up to full-scale production. Each of these trips would last up to a few weeks and would involve all aspects of the NPI process, including design tweaks, incoming component supply, assembly and test process definition, product qualification, reliability assurance, manufacturing yield assessment, and final product fulfillment models – all in preparation to support ramp to volume production requirements.

Corporate travel bans have canceled many of these trips and left engineering teams rushing to develop alternative approaches. Some are turning to U.S. firms to help. Because build schedules are already extremely tight, delays of any kind could impact planned product release dates. In short, the coronavirus outbreak is causing delays that could affect planned NPIs.

Mark Gurman reports on Apple’s Apple Inc. virtual town hall meeting with employees on Thursday:

Dan Riccio, senior vice president of hardware engineering, called remote work a “huge challenge” for device design that is usually done in lab settings. He said travel restrictions in March were particularly tough because that is when engineers typically travel to China to help kick off manufacturing of products launching in the fall.

Apple worked around this, with engineers controlling robots from home and using iPads with augmented-reality software to guide technicians in overseas factories, Riccio said. Staff also worked different hours to communicate better with staff already stationed in China. The “very best is yet to come,” Riccio added. The company is focused on developing augmented-reality and virtual-reality hardware products for debut in coming years, Bloomberg News has reported.

There’s a lot of talk about companies remaining virtual even in a post-pandemic world, but the manufacturing sector probably isn’t ready for that and the full set of tools needed are probably years away. Companies pivoted, but it exerted a toll on their employees. As Tim Cook noted:

“There’s no replacement for face-to-face collaboration, but we have also learned a great deal about how we can get our work done outside of the office without sacrificing productivity or results,” he told staff, according to people familiar with the comments. “All of these learnings are important. When we’re on the other side of this pandemic, we will preserve everything that is great about Apple while incorporating the best of our transformations this year.”