We all know the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to be far and wide. But do we specifically know the impact it will have on an industry near and dear to my heart—manufacturing?

When the virus first hit the United States back in February, the NAM (National Assn. of Manufacturers) conducted a survey—from February 28 until March 9—of its member companies about the impact to the supply chain and operations.

At that time, 78.3% of respondents anticipated a financial impact; 53.1% anticipated a change in operations; and 35.5% faced supply-chain disruptions. Even before the worst of it took hold and states shut down, manufacturers knew they were facing an uphill battle. That’s why I have always said, if you want to predict where the economy is headed, talk to someone working inside the plant. Operations has a keen sense of what’s coming, but don’t forget the IT-side (information technology) of the house, it has all the data.

Further along in the crisis, PwC conducted a survey of CFOs during the week of April 22, and found similar results. The top three concerns with respect to COVID-19 are the financial impact, which includes the impact on operations and liquidity and capital resources; a potential global recession; and the effects on the workforce and a reduction in productivity. Further down the list we see concerns related to consumer confidence reducing consumption and supply-chain disruptions.

What I found interesting about what PwC has done is it is looking at the positive as well as offer practical steps for responding to the crisis—and manufacturing, employs some 13 million workers in the United States. First, many manufacturing jobs are on-site and cannot be carried out remotely. Second, slowed activity has reduced demand for industrial products in both the United States and globally.

Here are a few steps PwC suggests when it comes to adjusting and creating a safe place for the workforce, while also still maintaining operations:

  • Ensure employees are safe and know how to protect themselves.
  • Discuss change management and flexible work arrangements.
  • Assess strategies and plans to retain and deploy the workforce during the slowdown and establish risk-mitigation programs for employees who still need to work on-site.
  • Gather necessary data on employees and track movements during the crisis.
  • Outsource functions that can trim operating costs.

Another factor that makes manufacturing unique is supply-chain disruptions. This can’t be downplayed and we have seen it time and time again throughout this crisis. Not only are manufacturers impacted, but it also sends a ripple throughout the entire supply chain, impacting suppliers by driving reduced demand for materials and components.

Further, if we look down the supply chain, partners may also experience their own challenges, thus not fulfilling orders on time. We know the deeper into the supply chain, the greater the impact of the outbreak. Manufacturers with Tier 2 and especially Tier 3 suppliers are most affected by disruptions related to the pandemic. While many large manufacturers have instant online visibility to top-tier suppliers, the challenge grows at lower levels.

Here are a few steps PwC suggests when it comes to preparing for disruptions in the supply chain:

  • Transfer new knowledge throughout the supply chain.
  • Gain a keener, realtime situational awareness of your supply chains.
  • Prepare for supply chain pivots that could require identifying alternative suppliers.
  • Seek alternatives that allow you to preserve relationships, co-create solutions, and sustain both businesses.
  • Prioritize cybersecurity and system resiliency—this is something I have been saying here since the start of the pandemic.
  • Evaluate automation solutions to reduce the number of workers on the factory floor.

I want to narrow in on that last point a little bit further. Naturally, as we talk about here at Connected World, this would be a good time to consider automation technologies in our plants. Everything from collaborative robotics, autonomous materials movement, to the industrial IoT (Internet of Things) can help decrease worker density throughout a plant. Manufacturers that have piloted a project should now be ramping up. Specifically, for manufacturers and the supply chain, PwC recommends focusing on autonomous materials movement, automation of repetitive tasks, and predictive maintenance.

Of course, I would also recommend anyone working in the U.S. manufacturing industry to turn to the CDC guidelines while continuing operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The CDC recommends creating a COVID-19 assessment and control plan; educate and train workers about how they can reduce the spread; implement administrative controls; cleaning and disinfecting protocols; strategies for screening workers and managing sick workers; tips for personal protective equipment; and the importance of knowing workers’ rights during this time.

While the impact of COVID-19 in manufacturing is far reaching—as we have all seen in the past five months—we can put the right tools in place today to continue business. We need to consider this more than ever before. Remember, as I have already stated, manufacturers are always needed. They have the data first to help keep plants up and running safely. We just have to tap into the information they have by asking the right questions to keep every safe and secure.

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