Agility in a crisis

Manufacturers equipped with virtual-experience technologies stepped into the COVID-19 supply gap

Jacqui Griffiths
16 November 2020

5 min read

Virtually overnight, the global pandemic challenged manufacturers as factories closed, global supply chains broke and painstakingly crafted production plans became irrelevant. But agile firms adapted quickly – enabling them to seize new opportunities and further distance themselves from the competition.

When COVID-19 hit Australia, B&R Enclosures, a Queensland, Australia-based provider of specialty enclosures, racks and cabinets to communications and energy companies, had to adapt quickly.

“The pandemic disrupted our supply chain and added to uncertainty in demand,” said Chris Bridges-Taylor, executive director of B&R Enclosures. “However, the need for infrastructure projects and major customized projects still existed, at times becoming more urgent as the community’s use of communications and energy changed. We had to focus on being adaptable and fluid in our resource management and operations.”

Because it was already in the midst of a well-planned digital transformation journey, B&R Enclosures adapted and accelerated its strategy to support new ways of working. It rolled out an integrated health and safety approach across all its sites, introduced processes to use local resources and increase transparency in quotation, order and design processing, adapted supply chain management, and put virtual team management systems in place to reduce the lockdown’s impact.

“We were able to speed up implementation of our projects aimed at utilizing real-time data right across the business, to enable better information-based decisions, quicker responses and smarter resource management,” Bridges-Taylor said. “Accelerating our Remote Desktop Services project enabled our design team to work from home using multiple screens, accessing large [3D] models in our computer-aided design and engineering program in a secure environment with multi-factor authentication. We also dramatically increased the speed of our move to paperless reporting and process management.”

A silver lining

B&R Enclosures exemplifies a digitally enabled shift in opportunity: the company has been able to respond to its customers’ need to reinforce supply without compromising on competitiveness, quality or lead times. By empowering its customers to build resilience to unpredictable challenges, B&R Enclosures has actually improved its business outlook.

“We were able to speed up implementation of our projects aimed at utilizing real-time data right across the business, to enable better information-based decisions, quicker responses and smarter resource management.”

Chris Bridges-Taylor
Executive Director, B&R Enclosures

Lisa Anderson, a US-based consultant and author of “Future-proofing manufacturing & the supply chain post COVID-19,” believes that more buyers will be seeking out suppliers who have proven themselves to be digitally enabled and resilient-ready.

“In the new reality brought by COVID-19, executives will be more concerned about risk and how to be prepared for rapidly changing customer conditions,” Anderson said. “We’ve seen examples of firms that quickly retooled, put the word out that they were flexible and able to support new customer requirements, and built on their core strengths to build synergistic products, backfill suppliers and be proactive to changing customer conditions. These companies have a keen eye on changing conditions, a culture of innovation and a close-knit community that can partner to rapidly meet evolving requirements.”

As B&R Enclosures demonstrates, digitally enabled operations and modern collaboration platforms are at the heart of such successful responses to disruption.

Safe and productive

The key challenges COVID-19 presented to manufacturers – including the need to create a COVID-safe workplace and to operate with reduced personnel on-site – awoke many companies to the perils of not having these capabilities.

“To protect their workers, manufacturers need to standardize their safety-related process,” said Ke Wang, managing director, Industry X.0 at Accenture China. “And to ‘live the process’ and operate in a productive way they must provide the technology to support available workers.”

To achieve these goals requires transparency across the organization, plus the ability to rapidly analyze and respond to fast-changing scenarios.

“When data from all their systems is integrated in one place, all their equipment is connected to it and their operators are connected to that equipment, manufacturers have the transparency to enable agile management,” Wang said. “For instance, planning-optimization software can use that data to suggest the most efficient production schedule. Artificial intelligence can use it to automate quality inspections or enable predictive maintenance. And autonomous logistics solutions can use it to enhance the capability of remote, automated and intelligent operations.

"When restrictions make it impossible for experts to visit for maintenance and repairs,” Wang added, “the ability to visualize and share relevant data using augmented reality [AR] glasses enables them to connect that external expertise to guide a person working on site.”

94%

of Fortune 1,000 companies were experiencing supply chain disruption due to COVID-19 by March 2020.

Accenture: "Building supply chain resilience: What to do now and next during COVID-19"

Ideally, all of a company’s processes and data will be visually accessible via a virtual twin – a scientifically accurate digital model of a manufacturer’s real-world system , also known as a digital twin – enabling new processes and measures like social distancing to be tested and verified before they’re implemented on the factory floor.

CenterLine (Windsor) Limited, a Canadian industrial automation process and technology company, for example, uses virtual twins of the assembly lines it builds for its customers to verify robot movements, optimize its use of shop floor space, material flow and ergonomic safety, and demonstrate its machines’ capability to its customers, before the assembly lines are built. The technology has reduced tooling-related issues and rework by up to 90% and cut programming time on the floor by 75%.

“Our customers can visualize their concepts and machines virtually before we build them,” said Luciano Mancini, robotics simulation lead at CenterLine. “Having a simulated model of their assembly lines allows the end user to evaluate changes or new product viability without affecting current production.”

Connecting the value chain

To achieve true resilience, the transparency that supports agile management must extend into the supply chain.

“Only with insight on the entire value chain, from orders and supply availability to their own production and logistics capacity, can manufacturers coordinate the supply chain to respond quickly and accurately to any disruptions,” Wang said. “To achieve that, they need deep collaboration with suppliers. A clear view of the entire supply chain is essential, including insight on suppliers’ inventory, production planning, raw materials availability, and each supplier’s plans for stabilizing its own supply chain if part of it shuts down.”

Eric Stoker and Chris Bridges-Taylor of B&R Enclosures view details of a specialized enclosure for Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia, while Suede Varrica (background) double-checks specifications. When the pandemic hit, in-process digital transformation projects enabled B&R to win more business from companies worldwide. (Image © B&R Enclosures)

The fast-evolving COVID-19 situation quickly taught manufacturers that traditional, manual ways of collecting and analyzing such data cannot keep pace with modern realities. By accelerating its digital transformation, B&R Enclosures made the leap in supply chain visibility needed to survive the pandemic and position itself to thrive in a fast-changing future.

“We have almost real-time access and relevant, up-to-date information across our technical services and production areas, and we collaborate with our key customers, suppliers and interstate operations through virtual meetings and platforms,” Bridges-Taylor said. “This collaboration is supported by advanced project management tools and has driven agility, effective concurrent processing and better problem solving, even when people are working remotely from one another. We are delighted to be supporting the changing needs of some of Australia’s largest enterprises, including those with major projects in transport infrastructure, mining and telecommunications.”

Enabling the vision

As agile companies surge ahead of the competition to meet the demands of an unpredictable future where disruptions occur in many forms, those that have not yet begun their digital journey are at risk of falling further behind.

“Manufacturers focused on innovation, agility and regional collaboration will thrive in the new reality,” Anderson said. “Each firm will need to develop a differentiator that enables them to support a regional ecosystem, as well as the speed and responsiveness to support changing customer conditions. Developing the appropriate technology infrastructure, process disciplines and culture to support innovation and creativity will be key.”

To find their way forward, Wang advises organizations to balance short-term issues – a project’s cost, for example – against long-term strategy.

“Transforming individual points of the business will enable some improvements but, in a crisis scenario like COVID-19, that might not be enough,” he said. “Unless the transformation is systemic there will still be a lack of integration and overall transparency. To enable resilience to future shocks, they need a clear vision of why their technology investment is important for the business and a deep understanding of their transformation roadmap.”

For B&R Enclosures, the strategy that enabled agile responses to the pandemic is now helping the company to shape its new reality.

“Nobody could predict the disruption that COVID-19 caused, but now it’s essential for every company to build events of this magnitude into its strategy,” Bridges-Taylor said. “Our customers are our business, and enabling fast, informed decisions and collaboration allows everyone at B&R to be connected to them. That helps us to take advantage of opportunities, to get it right the first time and to add real value.”

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