Despite the growing crisis, the last week has been one of the most heartening of my career.

We’ve watched individuals across manufacturing and across the world step up and act selflessly for their communities.

If the last week has confirmed my belief in the goodness of people, it’s also confirmed a less rosy observation: our manufacturing systems weren’t built for this.

COVID-19 and the ensuing economic shutdown have put enormous strain on manufacturing. Even so, we’re in the midst of a mobilization unlike anything in recent history. Organizations are doing everything they can to scale production in spite of breaking supply chains, labor limitations, and rapidly shifting demand.

Our current moment is one for action, but it’s also one for reflection. How did we get here? How will we respond? What comes next?

We currently have a once-in-a-generation chance to transform our manufacturing systems for the better. Making it happen requires answering these questions correctly.

How did we get here?

It’s impossible to summarize the last decade in manufacturing in a few hundred words. To me, however, two trends have exerted an outsized influence.

Complex, interconnected global systems

In the last decade manufacturing markets have grown extraordinarily complex. This is true from the supply chains that move raw goods and finished products, to the kinds of consumer demands that influence what gets manufactured in the first place.

Let’s look at supply chains first.

It’s a truism that supply chains are more complex than ever before.

The obvious form of complexity here is global reach. If we look at Apple’s supplier list as an example–useful here both because it’s publicly available and for the company’s mastery of operations management–we see dozens of countries, five continents, and hundreds of unique suppliers. Factor in those supplier’s suppliers and you have a tightly interlocking, interdependent system. It’s a true modern marvel.

But those same interdependencies that make supply chains so impressive also open them to–no pun intended–chain reactions during periods of disruption.

To see how this bears on the current public health crisis, we need look no further than the companies who specialize in manufacturing ventilators.

In recent coverage, the New York Times noted that Medtronic, one of the leading manufacturers of ventilators, relies on a complex, global supply chain characteristic of our era. A single ventilator requires 1,500 unique parts sourced from 14 different countries.

The focus on global distribution, however, can mask another form of complexity: compression.

Manufacturers have become experts in eliminating non-value-add steps from their supply chains. They’ve done so through inventory management, at turns supplier consolidation and diversification, and production forecasting, among others.

As a result, these supply chains are more efficient under normal operations (and even less-than-normal operations) but less resilient in times of sustained crisis. There’s less inventory on hand, and the carefully optimized connections can break as multiple manufacturers respond to irregular spikes in demand and materials shortages.

All of this is to say that manufacturers contend with a set of extremely complex external forces in the basic execution of their work: getting material and goods in and out the door.

Complex, interconnected manufacturing systems

What happens, then, when we forget the broader world and look inside the factory?

In addition to external contingencies, manufacturing systems militate against rapid shifts in production in their own way.

For one, many manufacturers still rely heavily on analog methods to observe and analyze their operations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with paper or whiteboards. But they simply aren’t the fastest way to understand and modify sophisticated production processes. In moments like ours, when speed matters, paper kills.

Where advanced manufacturing systems do exist, they can also present barriers to rapid shifting or scaling. Manufacturing software has historically prioritized scope over ease of use. These systems can pull a tremendous amount of weight, managing and tracking manufacturing value chains from raw material to finished product.

And yet, they’re enormously complex. These systems are custom-built–or purchased with off-the-shelf modules and features, which leads to a different set of difficulties–for every factory. The effort can take developers, engineers, and consultants years to finalize. Each line of code tends to fit just-so in relation to others such that small changes can ripple downstream in unpredictable ways. Making changes requires time intensive scoping, scripting, and validation.

These systems are already straining against market demands like short product life cycles, fast new-product-introduction cycles, and demand for customization. What’s happening now is a radical intensification of each of these existing market demands.

For example, shifting from cars to facemasks is an extreme form of new product introduction. Transferring all resources to ventilators is akin to operating on vanishingly short product life cycles.

Our current necessity to shift production at a moment’s notice, however, is straining manufacturing systems to the breaking point.

In short, manufacturers are facing difficulties from the inside and the outside.

The question remains, then, What’s next?

A way out

So at this point we need to ask: what can we learn from these trends? What can manufacturers do now to steel themselves for the current disruption and prepare for whatever comes next.

Baseline digitization

Speed and flexibility are imperative. So one of the first things manufacturers can do is create a baseline of digitization in their operations.

There are a number of ways of doing this, but the important thing to note is that speed and flexibility aren’t possible without good, easily accessible data. An analyst at ARC recently made this point concisely.

“Agile and flexible manufacturing requires digital technologies to provide the speed to quickly respond to changing market demands and the data upon which to make those decisions, in a crisis or normal circumstances. It also requires deep integration of disparate systems up and down the value chain, particularly in the case of COVID-19, when untold lives may be at stake.”

Digitization isn’t a panacea. Digital organizations aren’t immune to disruptions. But they are better poised to absorb shocks and adapt. They have access to new forms of problem solving. And they’re much better able to return to normal when conditions stabilize.

Tools for the frontline worker

Manufacturing systems weren’t designed to be easy to use. Rarely, if ever, have they prioritized user experience. And yet this is exactly what’s required to improve speed and flexibility.

With factories temporarily shuttering to protect the safety of workers, there should be no doubt that manufacturing is still, as it always has been, a human industry.

Manufacturing tools should empower workers to take ownership over their processes. Current development flows (engineer to IT to developers) aren’t fast enough. And information gets lost in translations.

Manufacturing tools need to unleash the deep knowledge held by the frontline workforce.

Rapid reskilling and retraining

Shifting production isn’t just a matter of designing new cells and workflows. It’s a matter of getting everyone in the operation up to speed.

So it’s imperative that training be, A.) easy to design and iterate, B.) mirror actual production processes, C.) accessible from anywhere (imagine how fast we could move if employees could train for new processes while stuck at home?).

Here, broad, open source reskilling and upskilling initiatives are as important as in-house, targeted programs.

Manufacturing will only ever be as flexible as it’s workforce. So when we think about a future, we need to ask what we can do to bring our people with us.

We’re all software developers now

I’ve mentioned slow software development cycles several times in this post. That’s because they’re one of the biggest barriers to an agile manufacturing.

One way to do speed production is to empower workers with no code tools. We saw this happen with platforms like Salesforce. With Salesforce, subject matter experts (salespeople) were suddenly able to design applications and modules for their unique work. As a result, the profession evolved from the bottom-up, with onerous work traded for more efficient and accurate processes.

Manufacturing needs to empower workers in a similar way. Frontline workers need to be able to design software for their unique processes. That software needs to be able to link between shop floor sensors and data streams and back end systems (MES and ERP, e.g.).

If this is possible, anything is.

What the next decade could look like

The comparison between our present situation and war mobilization is hyperbolic. I’ve done as much as I can to avoid it, but I want to invoke it against my better judgement in order to highlight the potential for structural transformation across industries.

So please indulge the comparison for just two paragraphs.

Projects begun and systems built during WWII set a foundation for the most protracted period of human flourishing in history. The birth of an international consumer class, global economic and production systems, and quality of life improvements were all facilitated by human and industrial mobilization.

Thinking optimistically, what if this moment instigates a massive modernization of manufacturing? What foundation for new flourishing could we begin to lay today? How much more ready would we be for the next crisis? And the next?

There’s also a more urgent question lurking beneath the surface: If not now, when?

What COVID-19 has done is put minor flaws in manufacturing systems under a microscope. Designs and dependencies that were visible under normal operation are now baldly exposed.

But this is all hypothetical at the moment.

Right now, we are where we are. And we are is (likely) the beginning of a long fight that will require innovation and coordination on a massive scale. So right now, in our communities, homes, and factories, we need to care for one another, and do our part to keep ourselves safe.

A new manufacturing would be a silver lining.

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