Just over a year into the ‘Roaring 20s’, it appears that this decade is poised to be marked by significant digital transformation.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played a crucial role in driving this change. At the onset of the pandemic, organizations across various sectors, including healthcare, retail, construction, and education, swiftly embraced new digital technologies to maintain operations amid increasingly stringent lockdown measures.

A year later, organizations have not only persevered but have also continued to adapt and expand. Digital transformation initiatives that were initially conceived as decade-long projects are now progressing at an unprecedented pace. There is even speculation that the field of electronics manufacturing could experience the equivalent of five years’ worth of development in the next 18 months, a consequence of the production challenges brought about by COVID-19.[i]

In the forthcoming article, Eddie Storan, Head of Global Service at Domino Printing Sciences, examines how COVID-19 has hastened the digitalization of contemporary production lines and the enduring shift in mindset that has resulted from this acceleration.

[i] The Economist, “How to reopen factories after covid-19”, accessed 24th June 2020 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/04/07/how-to-reopen-factories-after-covid-19

Edward Storan Domino Printing Sciences

The COVID-19 Industrial Revolution

The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated a sort of mini industrial revolution, albeit with a unique twist. Unlike previous industrial revolutions primarily driven by goals such as process efficiency, revenue, growth, and long-term business survival, the current situation has made survival the primary short-term driver. The adjustment period has been a matter of months rather than the years or decades characteristic of past revolutions. The ongoing trend of digitalization has accelerated, giving rise to a form of ‘commercial Darwinism,’ where business adaptability takes precedence over performance improvement.

The pandemic has underscored the advantages of technology in aiding manufacturers and brands to navigate supply and demand fluctuations, facilitate social distancing and remote work in manufacturing sites, and operate effectively with a significantly reduced workforce. During the peak of the pandemic in 2020, McKinsey reported that approximately a quarter of leading manufacturing firms in Asia were expediting automation programs to address worker shortages[i].

Industry 4.0 has been at the forefront of this revolution, with manufacturers recognizing the benefits of automated solutions in reducing errors and maximizing efficiency on production lines. Cloud-based systems have emerged as a solution for real-time remote monitoring and visibility of production line performance. Video conferencing has become standard practice, and the development of new augmented reality applications is underway, providing accessible remote solutions for machine installations, customer support, and product maintenance.

According to a recent digital engagement report from Twilio[ii], 97% of respondents stated that COVID-19 had accelerated their digital transformation, with some noting that their companies’ digital communications strategies had been expedited by up to six years. The report also indicates that, in some cases, historical barriers to digital transformation have been dismantled out of necessity, including the need for executive approval, lack of time, skills, and know-how, and insufficient engineering support.

[i] McKinsey, ‘Industry 4.0: Reimagining manufacturing operations after COVID-19’, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/industry-40-reimagining-manufacturing-operations-after-covid-19#

[ii] Twilio, ‘Covid-19 Digital Engagement Report’, https://www.twilio.com/covid-19-digital-engagement-report

Remote connectivity

At the onset of the pandemic, businesses across various sectors invested in videoconferencing tools to facilitate remote work and offer a safe alternative for customer interactions. Previously internal tools have now been repurposed to fill gaps in customer service and support. In situations where on-site service engineers couldn’t attend customer production lines, these applications have become essential for providing remote assistance and conducting virtual service visits to address technical issues.

For Domino, virtual customer service and support have played a crucial role during the COVID-19 pandemic, with global offices adopting new applications to sustain customer service despite the global lockdown.

Domino’s Indian subsidiary utilized audio-visual applications to remotely carry out complete printer installations, successfully completing 43 installations in April and May 2020 alone. Meanwhile, Domino service support staff in China have been assisting customers with remote installations, troubleshooting, and technical support. The team has also created online training sessions to offer comprehensive and easily understandable instructions on product operation, empowering customers to maintain equipment, identify issues, and enhance production line efficiency.

As a company, Domino has developed tools enabling customers to undergo virtual product demonstrations and laser substrate sampling – both critical aspects of the customer journey. This not only allowed the business to continue serving customers as it did before the pandemic but also highlighted the numerous benefits of such virtual services, including time and cost savings. This experience has led to the adoption of additional services, including remote training.

Advanced software and services

Besides repurposing existing technologies, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the development of advanced software and services through mixed reality (MR) technology, primarily in the form of augmented reality (AR). The market forecast for AR applications, particularly AR mobile or web-based visual support apps, is anticipated to reach $70–$75 billion in revenue by 2023[i].

These AR apps now enable service engineers to connect with customers on a production line, using video to investigate specific areas swiftly for faster issue resolution. If the problem is a straightforward fix, customers can be guided to perform maintenance themselves. In cases requiring an on-site visit, an engineer can be dispatched with comprehensive knowledge of the issue.

These applications extend beyond issue resolution. In the realm of coding and marking, technical faults may not be present; customers might simply need to make minor calibration adjustments. With AR, it becomes easy to assess print quality and provide guidance on making changes and improvements. This represents a notable shift from the pre-COVID era, where issue resolution or quality enhancements could take days, as now they can be achieved in a matter of minutes.

[i] Supply Chain Management Review, July 2020

Man looking at tablet, wearing a mask and glasses

Changing expectations

The recognition that automation, digital communications, and augmented reality (AR) can revolutionize our operations has arguably marked a lasting shift in mindset. Remote connectivity has become the standard, and the past year has enlightened people about the numerous advantages of these emerging technologies. While customers might have been hesitant in the past to consider remote installations, the clear evidence of the time and energy saved suggests that they are likely to embrace this service as the new normal in the future.

This shift is well-justified. Caterpillar has disclosed that 90% of failures in its equipment are preventable through regular inspections, timely service, and the replacement of worn parts, monitored through its remote inspection app[i].

Applying a similar strategy through Industry 4.0 connectivity standards and cloud-based services on production lines enables real-time monitoring and the detection of potential issues before they manifest. This approach also generates a wealth of data, often referred to as data lakes, which can be further analyzed to optimize operations and enhance production line efficiency on an industry-wide scale.

Connected services of this nature present an opportunity for industry providers to transition from the traditional reactive approach to a more proactive model, concentrating on maximizing machine uptime and improving overall productivity.

[i] Caterpillar, ‘CAT INSPECT HITS 1 MILLION INSPECTIONS‘, https://www.caterpillar.com/en/news/caterpillarNews/customer-dealer-product/cat-inspect-million.html?

The next five years?

While we all wish that 2020 was an exceptional year, the truth is that the industrial landscape has undergone irreversible changes. Manufacturers are now expected not only to withstand but to thrive in unpredictable circumstances, and it’s evident that the available technology can empower businesses to achieve precisely that.

From embracing automation and remote connectivity technologies to progressing with mixed and augmented-reality-based applications and services, digital transformation initiatives that were previously slow to gain traction are now anticipated to gain momentum. What has been accomplished in the past twelve months might be surpassed by the advancements in the next twelve, or even six, months if manufacturers and supply chains continue to face mounting pressures to navigate heightened market volatility.

COVID-19 may have triggered the most recent industrial revolution, but in reality, it could just as easily be seen as an accelerator of the ongoing digitalization revolution. One thing is certain, though – it has sent a clear message that business adaptability is crucial for commercial survival.

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[1] The Economist, “How to reopen factories after covid-19”, accessed 24th June 2020 https://www.economist.com/briefing/2020/04/07/how-to-reopen-factories-after-covid-19

[1] McKinsey, ‘Industry 4.0: Reimagining manufacturing operations after COVID-19’, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/operations/our-insights/industry-40-reimagining-manufacturing-operations-after-covid-19#

[1] Twilio, ‘Covid-19 Digital Engagement Report’, https://www.twilio.com/covid-19-digital-engagement-report

[1] Supply Chain Management Review, July 2020

[1] Caterpillar, ‘CAT INSPECT HITS 1 MILLION INSPECTIONS‘, https://www.caterpillar.com/en/news/caterpillarNews/customer-dealer-product/cat-inspect-million.html?
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