2020 was an extremely tough year for businesses around the world. The lockdowns and restrictions that COVID-19 imposed especially impacted the manufacturing industry. Some would even call it the perfect storm created by a mix of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), the accelerating need to decrease the carbon footprint, raising trade tensions and economic instability.

Despite the additional precautions many took, some factories were forced to shut down or operate with a reduced workforce due to COVID spread. Moreover, demand volatility, longer lead times, higher cost of production and remote management were also commonplace, causing a ripple effect that was felt all the way to the end consumer.

The companies who ‘won’ in 2020 were those who embraced emerging manufacturing technologies, were already positioned to operate with efficiency and had a culture that embraced change and adaptation.

According to a recent survey conducted by McKinsey, 90% of executives believe that the COVID-19 pandemic will fundamentally change the way manufacturers conduct business in the next 5 years.

We have already begun to see some notable examples of manufacturers overcoming immense challenges that the pandemic created, forcing companies to innovate in exciting ways.

Below, we have summarized what we believe are the top five examples of innovation that happened in the manufacturing industry in 2020 and give our two cents about what innovation we think will come next.

Technopath Distribution Ltd - A medical waste solution

Technopath Distribution, an Ireland-based medical manufacturing company, produced an innovation that solved an environmental disaster during the pandemic. According to the National Institute of Health, COVID-19 can survive on stainless steel and plastic surfaces for up to three days.

To counter this risk, Technopath developed Envetec 200, a system that shreds and disinfects all infectious material waste with a process that kills the coronavirus. The process does not even need heat or any chemicals to do the job.

Moreover, the residue left is safe to handle, can be disposed of in a regular bin, and can also be used in certain recycling processes. This manufacturing innovation has been extremely effective in battling the spread of the virus at their facilities.

Unilever – Rethink packaging & use of plastic

In 2019, Unilever became the first major consumer goods company to commit to an absolute plastic reduction across its portfolio. By 2025, the company claims that they will have reduced the use of virgin plastic by 50% (more than 100,000 tonnes).

And then… COVID-19 hit.

Instead of pausing their efforts to reduce waste in favour of cost savings and ‘survival,’ they pushed forward with their plans. Since their announcement in 2019, the company has released several impressive innovations that put them well on their way to their goals.

  1. Over 10% of their plastic footprint has been replaced by recycled plastic
  2. Recyclable paper-based packaging has been used in some products, saving about 4,500 tonnes of plastic
  3. Within the first 12-months of launching their first dilute-at-home laundry detergent, they have saved 171 tonnes of plastic and empowered hundreds of thousands of customers to reuse spray bottles rather than buy new ones

In response to the strides Unilever has made thus far, Richard Slater, Unilever’s Chief R&D Officer said, “To tackle the root causes of plastic waste we need to think differently about packaging. We need bold innovations that challenge existing designs, materials, and business models. Our priority is to fundamentally rethink our approach to packaging and pave the way for new solutions such as reusable and refillable formats.”

Escaro Royale – Leveraging tech to reduce dead stock

Escaro Royale, an Indian luxury goods eCommerce brand that offers handcrafted men’s footwear, bags, and accessories, was born out of a love of tech. Ambud Sharma, the company’s CEO, came from a tech background and quickly recognized the underutilization of software and machine learning in the manufacturing process.

The company noticed that dead stock was and is a big problem in the manufacturing space. To solve this problem, they created an internal ERP system called LERP, which allows them to maintain just-in-time inventory to eliminate dead stock and allow for zero wastage in their supply chain.

They have also leveraged a technology called Power BI which is used to visualize abstract data that allows them to make better inventory stocking decisions than other more traditional methods.

The company has been extremely excited at the results they have seen and expect technology to continue to play an increasing role in manufacturing for years to come.

Coca-Cola – Agile pivot to meet demand for hand sanitizer

In response to the sudden demand for hand sanitizer around the world, a number of companies involved in bottling and distillation pivoted some of their production to create hand sanitizer that could be distributed to the masses.

Coca-Cola was one of the largest examples of this call to arms. They tasked their manufacturing facilities in France, Brazil, Ireland, Japan, Puerto Rico, Swaziland, Uganda, Ethiopia, Germany, Kenya, South Africa, Turkey, Belgium, and the United States to produce hand sanitizer that they then donated to hospitals, clinics, and nursing homes around the world.

The first team to respond to the meet was in Midi, France. They quickly mobilized technical teams and equipment to find a way to produce hydroalcoholic gel at its plant in southern France.

Coca-Cola’s quick response to local needs near their various facilities shows their commitment to the community and their company’s strong innovation culture, which enabled them to quickly create a solution to an urgent problem and execute on it.

What’s Next?

As the fourth industrial revolution reaches maturity, we look forward to the fifth industrial revolution with excitement. Where the 4IR was largely focused around embracing digital processes, it is expected that the Fifth Industrial Revolution will be heavily focused on internet of things (IoT), VR/AR, artificial intelligence, and next-gen robotics.

Some would even say that we have already entered 5IR, but in truth, we have barely scratched the surface. With the release of 5G, the ability to integrate IoT devices throughout the manufacturing process is finally possible. This opens opportunities for further automation, further efficiency, less dead stock, fewer mistakes, and more measurable data at all stages of the manufacturing process.

We are finally seeing the technology for VR and AR reach a point of practicality for use in manufacturing processes. We expect big things in this arena over the coming years. AI and robotics are not new to manufacturing, but the uses and reliance on them will definitely increase over the next few years.

One key element that manufacturers cannot overlook when planning to innovate their processes is to upskill their staff to adapt to the new technology they will encounter on the job. Simply giving them a SOP and user manual will not be enough.

It will be more important than ever to educate stakeholders, help them understand why the new innovative process or technology is important, and empower them to be innovators themselves.