Covid-19 accelerates ongoing changes of working style

Gartner conducted a survey targeting 800 global HR executives in March to find how companies and organizations respond to Covid-19 pandemic. The survey found that 88% of organizations have encouraged or required employees to work from home, regardless of whether or not they showed coronavirus-related symptoms. The same survey also found that nearly all organizations (97%) have canceled work-related travel. This is not new that companies promote remote work. Slack and Zoom were both launched in 2013 – long before the pandemic. However, Covid-19 pandemic dramatically accelerates the shifts toward working from home. As countries try to restart the economy, many companies, at least partially, keep their employees at home. Some companies such as IBM and Best Buy tried the option but eventually revoke their remote work policy. In 2009, 40% of IBM’s 386,000 employees in 173 countries have no office at all, according to its report. This contributed to the cost saving of nearly $2 billion. But in 2017, IBM, the pioneer of remote work, changed the policy and requested thousands of employees back to the office. Due to Covid-19 pandemic, however, the adoption of remote work is likely to increase. A Harvard study in 2019 appear to support this trend. The survey found that workers’ productivity increased by 4.4% after transition to work from home. This increase represents up to $1.4 billion annual additional value to the U.S. economy.

Challenge for manufacturing sector to avoid 3Cs*

Adoption remote work and work from home is not that simple and easy for the manufacturing sector. Avoiding 3Cs – essential steps to reduce the spread of coronavirus – is also a challenge for factories and production sites. Quality management and test often rely on specific and dedicated equipment and facility, and therefore, cannot be conducted remotely. Development and design tend to be more flexible than production, but many companies prohibit employees to take sensitive data out of the company for data security reasons. Or, some programming and designing work requires high-end PC that is not available at home.

Avoiding or limiting contact across the workforce is not easy at the production site where many staffs work together. When one of the factory workers gets infected, the entire production will have to be stopped. The factory needs to be disinfected, contact-tracing survey needs to be carried out, and colleagues of infected staff need to be quarantined. The state of national emergency has been lifted across Japan on May 25th, but potential risk of infection and subsequent economic damage cannot be underestimated. This, as well as growing uncertainty of the consumer demands, forces manufactures to keep their factory (partially) closed and furlough many workers. Toyota, for example, announced that the production cut the company introduced in April would remain in place in June. Toyota would halt production at all of its 15 plants for four days next month and reduce vehicle production in Japan by 122,000 units in June.

Accelerating innovation under Covid-19 pandemic

This is challenging time for the industry, but there are companies that take advantages of technologies and promote digital transformation, considering the new era with/after coronavirus. Kajima, one of the largest construction companies in Japan, adopted digital twin based on BIM (building information modelling) in the new construction project in Osaka, Japan. Kajima promotes digital twin in construction projects, a concept to digitize all the information related to each phase of the project from planning, design, construction to maintenance and replicate them virtually. In this project, Kajima will conduct a number of tasks using digital twin, including simulation of winds blowing through the buildings, cross-checking of the construction work with the model using Mixed Reality technology. ** After the construction work is completed, the data collected from regular maintenance and other sources will be combined, and feedback will be used for planning and development.

The use of innovative approach is not limited in large companies. Creative Works, a metal fabricator in Tokyo, continues its production under Covid-19 pandemic thanks to IoT-based welding kit and cloud-based IT system.

Covid-19 pandemic will negatively affect the manufacturing industry, at least in the short term. This is evident from the fact that ResearchAndMarket made downward revision to its estimation on the global smart manufacturing market size in 2020. However, the long-term prospect is promising as Covid-19 pandemic is expected to drive and accelerate innovation in the manufacturing sector. Previously, the adoption of robots are common in areas known as 3D (Dull, Dirty, Dangerous). The areas seem to expand to 4D as “Disease prevention” becomes a key paradigm. Forbes magazine predicted that manufacturing sector will experience five years of innovation in the next 18 months. Actions toward Industry 4.0 and smart factory are expected to gain speed.

Governments are also supporting this shift. European Commission, through European Innovation Council, called for ideas to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak with €164 million funding. This call for funding is targeting startups and SMEs with technologies and innovations that can help in the treatment, testing, monitoring or other aspects of Covid-19 pandemic.

In Japan, AI Frontier Program, commissioned by New Energy and Industrial Technology Development (NEDO), ran additional call for participants to program for capacity building. The program aims at developing human resources who can develop AI-based solution to coronavirus-triggered challenges in the society. Up to \3 million will be provided to the selected participants.

Efforts to provide and share information useful to promote adoption of advanced technologies are also on the rise. Innovation Matrix, for example, conducted an online seminar titled “Covid-19 and AMR (Autonomous Mobile Robots)” on April 27th. Asahi Tekko and i Smart Technologies also held an online seminar with the theme of “manufacturing in the age of after coronavirus” on May 27th. Asahi Tekko significantly curtailed the operation of its factory when the state of national emergency was issued in April. Based on its own experience, Asahi Tekko presented measures it took and lessons for the manufacturing sector.

As the business and market undergoes drastic change, companies that fail to adapt to changing environment will be forced out of business. Improving the adaptive capacity and enhancing competitiveness through IIoT and DX is more important than ever in the age of with/after coronavirus.

* 3C refers to Closed spaces with poor ventilation, Crowded places with many people nearby, and Close-contact setting such as close-range conversations ** Mixed reality is a technology that merges real and virtual worlds to create brand new environments where physical and digital components can interact simultaneously