Industry 4.0 in times of COVID-19 ... and then what?

The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has brought about a great many changes. And even when society gradually starts up again and we are allowed back out into the world, there will still be challenges to face. How are manufacturing companies coping with the situation? What about the period after ‘lockdown light’? And what does all this mean in the context of Industry 4.0? We asked our experts at Sirris what they made of it all.

With the relaunch of society and the economy in mind, we at Sirris took stock of the situation and looked ahead to the future.

What does the coronavirus pandemic mean for Industry 4.0?

“Industry 4.0 is first and foremost a vision for industry in 2035. These few months of crisis and the months of reconstruction that follow it, could well fade into insignificance”, explains Jan Kempeneers, Senior Engineer Smart and Digital Factory.

Program Manager Precision Manufacturing Peter ten Haaf agrees: “The long-term vision of Industry 4.0 remains unchanged, despite the fact that its implementation will be somewhat delayed. But the crisis will have an effect on decisions, with certain choices, such as the use of augmented reality to assist people remotely, coming to the fore. Things that were not seen as particularly important before the crisis, have risen up the agenda.”

Alain Jacques, Engineer Smart and Digital Factory, also sees the pandemic in a broader context: “Many business leaders have recently indicated the need to venture beyond the concepts of Industry 4.0. The COVID-19 crisis is highlighting the limits of globalisation and, as well as solidarity, we are also seeing the importance of creativity and responsiveness. Ambitious goals with a strong focus on people and the environment are needed to make our economy sustainable for the next generation."

Will particular technologies gain in importance, either now or in the future?

Bart Verlinden, Program Manager Smart and Digital Factory, is already noticing a few trends: “Because of this crisis, certain technologies - in particular low-threshold tools - may gain traction more quickly, and not just in production companies. Just think of teleworking and the flood of new apps for creating transparency. After the crisis, these innovations - for example simple apps and monitoring tools - may be rolled out more widely, including in production environments. The digitisation threshold experienced by production companies can now be overcome by daily experience, thus providing a link into production. Now that we are noticing how effective digitisation can be, the impetus is there to apply this in certain areas.”

“The danger with apps is that they are being produced in a rush because we need them, but questions remain about their security and quality.  Using them in a production environment in the near future is a different matter altogether. Is the data still available? How reliable is the data management? These are questions that are not being considered at the moment. The technologies are certainly usable in a production environment, but adaptation will be needed before they can be applied on a large scale”, is Peter ten Haaf’s critical comment.

“Absolutely. New apps and products are currently being developed with no consideration for security or accreditation. In a normal market, developments like this simply wouldn’t sell,” added Jan Kempeneers.

Business Unit Manager Advanced Manufacturing Walter Auwers sees another realisation dawning: “In production, awareness of the importance of cyber security is growing. Viruses in a computer environment can inflict similar damage to real-world ones, and the current situation is prompting people to think about how to protect themselves.”

“3D printing is currently being used for the production of medical equipment, such as respirators, and the technology can offer a solution for a great many companies. On the one hand, we have healthcare providers who need it for their protection, on the other are the large companies that are suddenly looking for solutions that can be 3D-printed, in order to provide rapid solutions to problems – for example for the manufacture of respirators, the provision of spare parts, etc. The current situation is giving the technology an opportunity to prove itself: printing components on the spot at very short notice, thereby eliminating long logistical chains. All you need are 3D files and you can start producing”, says Benjamin Denayer, Team Leader Additive Manufacturing.

Benjamin: “There are already some good examples out there. For example, Materialise has applied for FAMHP accreditation for a 3D-printed component - a NIP connector - that can be used to connect up components that are already available in most hospitals to create a PEEP mask (a positive pressure device). This demonstrates that the technology is flexible enough to develop new products very quickly or to switch to product start-up rapidly, for example in the event of a shortage. Of course, we need to proceed with some caution: you can’t have anyone and everyone printing off items for an intensive care environment.”

“And there is the question of whether companies’ production systems can also switch over quickly, allowing them to cope with the decline of one product or the need for another”, notes Walter Auwers.

“To keep some level of work going in emergencies, companies can invest in 3D printing to give them strategic local production capacity that can continue operating. But at that point you need knowledge to do this effectively, so why not build up that knowledge after the crisis in preparation for the next time?”, Peter ten Haaf muses.

Walter Auwers adds: “Isn’t the production of fabric face masks, for example, economically feasible for Belgian manufacturers who are already engaged in mass production, using advanced automation and digitalisation? Similar products are already being mass-produced here. The knowledge to produce the manufacturing equipment needed to manufacture such products is in any case available.”

What effects can our companies expect after the crisis?

“There are no materials shortages, which means that companies will be able to restart their activities when the time comes. If demand seeps through to the supply chain, it will start back up”, Walter Auwers predicts.

Bart Verlinden goes even further: “We have, in fact, picked up on a possible opportunity from a number of suppliers: when Tier 1 and OEMs restart their assembly lines they will need components, and suppliers will have to be able to respond very quickly to supply them. Those who can get up and running rapidly, with short lead times, will be able to gain market share. Fast delivery times could attract new customers, including customers for new components. In a restart phase, it could be very important for machine manufacturers to get parts delivered on time or at any rate very quickly. Flexibility and short lead times could therefore translate into extra work and new customers when the crisis is over.

“It’s early days yet and ‘re-launching the machine’, hoping for a return to growth, seems like a distant dream right now. But I dare to believe that local and national events will be given more attention and support from now on, and we may even see a shift towards renewed localism. This could be by the promotion of existing short circles in the form of support for production sites in our region and our country, and by encouragement for the entrepreneurial spirit that is so typical of many Belgians. Our manufacturers are agile and attentive, and that is to be encouraged,” Alain Jacques adds.

“In the longer term, I am hoping to see a positive effect, in that more goods that have previously been produced in China or elsewhere will once again be manufactured here for strategic reasons. Companies that work with Chinese suppliers have been at a standstill since January. They have now gone through the crisis themselves and will remain shut until May. Had they had some production capacity here, they might have been able to keep some work going during those first months until they themselves were hit. But, nowadays, everything has become so globalised that when someone somewhere drops out, the entire chain grinds to a halt,” Peter ten Haaf continues.

“The supply chain in the industry is so interdependent that it is difficult to say which sectors are critical. Supplies to the medical sector, from medical equipment to hospital beds, draw upon the entire economic fabric of manufacturing companies. So the whole manufacturing industry is critical to keeping a system in motion. For example, who would have thought that a face mask would be so essential to a system?”, says Walter Auwers.

“But let’s also not forget the effect of the stagnant sectors on manufacturing. How many companies are there that don’t work for the hospitality industry, for trade fairs, or for the events sector? Many manufacturing companies are involved and these, too, will be affected,” notes Jan Kempeneers.

Peter ten Haaf: “We are hearing from some SMEs that continue to produce that their order books are now being hit because the companies they sell to are at a standstill. If the situation persists, this will start to affect these SMEs too. Many companies have actually been able to work through their back-log in recent weeks.”

Alain Jacques, too, sees positives as well as problems: “The numerous campaigns for the production of medical equipment demonstrate that our manufacturers are able to recover quickly in the short term. But if we look at Wallonia, for example, we see that a large number of SMEs are currently struggling and recovery is expected to be difficult even once the crisis is over.”

“Belgium is an exporting country. Even once the crisis has passed here, companies will continue to be affected until the situation improves in the countries they export to - and a good part of the EU is already affected”, concludes Walter Auwers.

How can companies respond to mitigate the effect, now and in the future?

Walter Auwers: “What if we produced products such as face masks here in the first place, instead of automatically assuming that this has to take place in China? A number of companies are currently starting up innovation projects or reviewing certain aspects of their business. This is because they currently have the time to do so – unlike the situation in normal and peak periods when time is short and as a result little attention is paid to innovation. If the financial capacity is in place, now is the time to get to work on these projects. So, this is also a good moment to reach agreement amongst all the departments within a company about issues such as who is working on which projects. Sirris can help here, as support for innovation projects, feasibility studies and technology choices is a fundamental part of our services. Many companies are currently experimenting with new technologies, such as additive manufacturing, sometimes more at a craft level. Using Sirris, we can support this on a more scientific basis.

“For certain technologies that are now likely to become more common, such as augmented reality, we can certainly help in terms of how this can be correctly implemented, what is on the market, what is sound and what works”, Peter ten Haaf continues.

Jan Kempeneers sees an opportunity here: “Companies such as Tesla that already had flexibility in their production process and are able to make the switch effectively may serve as an inspiration for other companies that are not able to do so. The approach of switching quickly to cope with the sudden demand for a product, even if that product will not immediately meet all requirements, can also be used for potential customers, when clearly communicated. This allows a proof-of-concept or minimal viable product to be created immediately in response to a situation in which customer demand is not in evidence. This can then be developed further when demand is greater. If you can reach clear agreements about what the customer wants and what is possible, perhaps with concessions from both sides, then you can make a deal. Similar principles can, in certain cases, also be applied in the normal economy.”

Alain Jacques sees several tasks for Sirris here: “As a research centre serving SMEs, it is our job to convince them, to show them that a different approach is possible and help them with their technological choices in R&D and industrialisation. We, along with federations such as Agoria, should encourage both projects and support and subsidies to SMEs, as a complementary effort to maintain the technological level.”

“It is not inconceivable that the epidemic will reappear in the autumn. Companies are going to try and get themselves on a better footing to deal with it, in the knowledge that this may become a more common event. They will be looking at increasing remote working and making it more effective. Not just video conferencing, but also working together remotely on projects, monitoring production, communicating with customers - and, once again, this falls under Industry 4.0. If the right technology is available, you can, for example, monitor machines from home. Those who are feeling its absence now will be the first to show an interest in the future”, says Peter ten Haaf.

“Clearly, our costs won’t be the same as those in Asia, but we have learned to be smarter and to develop highly efficient production tools. The conditions that are in place and the help that is available to support businesses and the economy will also be critical. We will need a global vision oriented towards the world after COVID-19 that also applies to Wallonia, Flanders and Brussels, and we will need to look critically at ourselves”, concludes Alain Jacques.