Will COVID-19 Reshape the Manufacturing Workplace? It Already Has

COVID-19 is transforming what work looks like and how it gets done.

Contributed by: Rob Fritz, CEO Tech Soft 3D

The COVID-19 pandemic is transforming what work looks like and how it gets done in a variety of industries, and manufacturing is no different. Looking at the products and solutions that support manufacturing and some trends that are taking shape around them helps reveal the changes that are already taking place.

Cloud solutions were already ascendant even before COVID-19 reared its ugly head, and the pandemic has only reinforced the value of anywhere, anytime access to a critical piece of software, as vast swaths of the workforce found themselves working from home.

The ability to stay productive and continue designing, engineering and simulating outside the four walls of the office has provided a valuable lesson on the importance of cloud solutions. Since COVID-19 likely isn’t the only pandemic we’ll face over the next decade – or the only disruptive event that would necessitate remote working, such as a natural disaster – it’s unlikely this trend will reverse anytime soon.

Subscription pricing goes hand-in-hand with cloud solutions, and it will experience a similar upswing. While there will be some manufacturers that will prefer perpetual licenses, the affordable monthly cost of a subscription is a much easier pill to swallow in times of widespread uncertainty – for example, when a pandemic is ravaging the globe and there are fears that a worldwide economic depression might be on the horizon.

Meanwhile, who gets to decide what tools the end users use? While companies will still make centralized decisions regarding major tools such as the primary CAD or PLM system, individual users will have more freedom to pick the auxiliary tools that they can use with these systems.

This is partly because cloud offerings and subscription pricing lower the barrier to getting started with a product, making it very easy to grab a new tool and start using it. With this freedom comes a greater need for interoperability, to ensure that users can seamlessly move 3D data between the different products.

What About Collaboration?

The need to collaborate doesn’t disappear just because there’s a pandemic and large numbers of people are working remotely. This is where communication and collaboration tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams come into play – and if not a perfect substitute for having everyone in person, interacting face to face, they have shown themselves to be more than capable for most situations.

But what if a more intense type of collaboration is required? What if you’ve designed a new product prototype and want people’s detailed feedback and opinions?

Technologies like virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) will have a significant role to play here, allowing people to be “present” in the same space and able to view a new prototype – even for something as large as a car – as if they are actually there. Smooth 3D visualization is key to providing a successful user experience for these types of activities.

Point cloud technologies will also help keep people on the same page. A laser scan of a building, factory or product can be captured by one person and shared with the larger team, allowing others to experience the item more vividly than they could through photos or videos. Since some of these point clouds might contain millions of points, the ability to handle very large models is critical.

Expect the Internet to play a role in the “picture is worth a thousand words” game as well. While working remotely, the one thing everyone has in common is an internet connection (albeit, of different speeds). The ability to visualize very large 3D models, smoothly, on virtually any type of internet connection will enable more effective communication and collaboration.

All of the above, by the way, means that manufacturing teams can get quite a bit of work done while being distributed. This realization – that more things can successfully be done virtually than was previously thought – will trickle into other aspects of the business, from travel (do I really need to fly halfway around the world for a two-hour meeting?), to attendance at trade shows and conferences.

To be clear, this “lean” towards virtual and remote collaboration doesn’t mean offices are going away.

Remote working will certainly persist once COVID-19 has passed, but offices will continue to be valuable if they reimagine themselves as a centralized “rally point” that can bring together employees for brainstorming, group planning sessions and company meetings. Think: more meeting spaces, fewer individual offices. Essentially, offices will be optimized for the kinds of work that people need to do together, with teams coming and going at will.

Mitigating Risk with New Approaches

For all the ways in which COVID-19 has started to impact the tools that manufacturers use and the ways in which they collaborate, the pandemic’s most lasting impact might be in where a product gets manufactured.

COVID-19 brought into stark relief just how vulnerable supply chains can be, particularly if there is a heavy concentration in one country or region. Understanding the true cost of manufacturing in a far-flung location now involves not just calculating the cost of transporting goods, but also the hidden cost of “disruption risk.”

In response to this hidden cost, some manufacturers might find that it makes sense to bring back some of their manufacturing to places like North America or Western Europe that were previously deemed too expensive – but might look less so once a tally of all costs has taken place.

Various technologies can also play a role in mitigating supply chain risk. Adoption of 3D printing and other additive manufacturing technologies allows manufacturers to better withstand any disruptions to their traditional supply chain through a “DIY” approach, highlighting the importance of solutions that can handle popular file formats like STL or 3MF.

Likewise, automation within factories provides an important buffer against disruptive events such as a pandemic, because fewer people need to physically be present for business-as-usual to proceed.

We don’t know when COVID-19 will finally run its course, but it has already left its mark on the manufacturing industry and changed the way it operates. With the right technologies, manufacturing will continue to evolve to meet the new world in which it finds itself.

About the Author

Ron Fritz is Co-founder and CEO of Tech Soft 3D, a global technology firm headquartered in Bend, OR.  Driven by the company’s mission to Fuel Innovation, Ron has guided the company to expand its offerings beyond its original 3D visualization SDK into a robust suite of development tools which power hundreds of unique applications used by millions of engineers around the world.