The Connected Enterprise has been a priority for manufacturing companies in recent years but has experienced unprecedented acceleration due to COVID-19 in 2020.

Manufacturing leaders from Lockheed Martin, VirTex Enterprises, and IBM discussed major drivers of this acceleration, including enablement of the virtual workplace and data-driven decision making, in “Learning for the Future,” the fourth and final installment of the Manufacturing Leadership Council’s What’s Next for Manufacturing? virtual meeting series, which took place July 28. Based on the theme of the June Manufacturing Leadership Journal, this meeting was focused on how manufacturers are planning for the new normal.

Enabling the Virtual Workplace

Having a Connected Enterprise doesn’t just mean systems that talk to each other and share data; in the era of COVID-19, it enables employees to work and communicate from anywhere, with minimal disruption.

Panelist Brad Heath, President and CEO of VirTex Enterprises, a provider of electronic manufacturing services, shared that many customers declared VirTex to be a critical business, requiring it to remain operational throughout the pandemic.

To minimize disruption, VirTex enhanced its customer product lifecycle approach with virtual collaboration and data sharing, meetings, and product prototyping. For new customers, VirTex began offering virtual sales calls and factory tours. To facilitate all of this, the company utilized technologies like Microsoft Teams and Zoom for product and site metrics meetings, as well as Microsoft Government Cloud and Egnyte as a secure server.

Heath added that tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams need to continue to evolve. “[They] don’t fit the bill yet as one solution for collaborative communication and planning, said Heath, a member of the MLC’s Board of Governors. “They do a good job of replacing meetings, but we need to find a way to fully integrate our data analysis, whiteboarding, planning with integrated meetings.”

However, more broadly, virtual approaches with suppliers and customers have been successful; VirTex has maintained 94% on-time delivery with suppliers and 96% on-time delivery for customers. Heath said they will use their internal collaboration tools with suppliers and vendors. For example, VirTex recently conducted a full MES implementation remotely with its software vendors, which resulted in a $10,000 savings on travel costs for vendors and a 20% decrease in implementation costs.

Similarly, panelist Dr. Don Kinard, Senior Fellow, Aeronautics Production Operations at Lockheed Martin, said with the help of technology, 80,000 Lockheed employees have been able to work effectively from home, conducting virtual meetings with suppliers and hosting virtual industry and customer events. The company has continued hiring but has shifted new hire onboarding to a virtual orientation.

Connecting the Enterprise with Cutting Edge Technologies

The Connected Enterprise is built upon cutting edge technologies like IoT, AR, blockchain, and more. But to get the most out of those technologies, especially during a pandemic, companies need those systems to collect and analyze data to empower workers to make rapid, intelligent decisions.

Panelist Ron Castro, Vice President and Chief Supply Chain Officer at IBM, said the company had previously invested in digital platforms, allowing it to take quick action during the pandemic. He emphasized the importance of real time, saying that cracks in the global supply chain often happen because of three main reasons – lack of real-time information, lack of ability to respond to rapid changes, and lack of real-time collaboration.

Castro, also a member of MLC’s Board of Governors, shared that IBM has moved to agile development for digital transformation and is now delivering new capabilities every two weeks. They’re also doing both collaborative planning and intelligent workflows in real time and rely on digital twins to enable training and remote work.

For example, with much of its supply coming from China and other locations around the world, IBM uses  VR to meet with suppliers and manufacturing teams, and digital twins have helped minimize the number of people required to go onsite at plants.

Toward the end of the session, all panelists agreed that the Connected Enterprise has never been more important, but there is still more work to do.

“We believe that connecting our enterprise is a fundamental thing… we’ve been on a journey to connect our equipment, to get all that data collected,” said Kinard. “COVID has slowed us down a bit because the factories have been occupied with [it], but I don’t see that it’s changed our approach.”

Recordings of all four What’s Next for Manufacturing? virtual meetings are now available on demand at: www.manufacturingleadershipcouncil.com/kbtopic/covid-19-resources/.