By Mark Schmit, Partnerships Manager, NIST Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP)
Polaris MEP is the Rhode Island Center for the MEP National NetworkTM, which is here to help U.S. manufacturers through these unprecedented times. Our mission is to strengthen and empower U.S. manufacturers.
I think we’d all say that this year has been different than we thought it would be way back in January. Plans had to change; adaptations had to be made. Video meetings have become a larger part of life, both personally and professionally, than I ever imagined outside of TV shows about space travel.
Then again, I guess with enough upheaval we can all feel a bit lost in space, eh? Yes, yes, let those among us who have not yet binged their entire watchlist of wholesome family adventures cast the first stone. “Danger, Will Robinson.”
For many businesses, the 2020 experience has been much the same. To capture perspectives on the state of American manufacturing, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) organized a series of listening sessions — the “National Conversation with Manufacturers” series.
The focus of the conversations is on learning how manufacturers are handling the near-term jolt from the pandemic and preparing for success in the long-term. The six Midwestern manufacturing leaders who participated in an August 28, 2020 virtual conversation were among dozens nationally who offered their insights.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to function and think differently as they strive to keep day-to-day operations going with as much feeling of normalcy as they can. The months since the novel Coronavirus emerged have certainly been difficult. But manufacturing leaders also describe the experience as transformational, forcing them to embrace virtual meetings, develop deeper connections to their staff and appreciate supply chain resilience.
“This pandemic has probably brought forward multiple years of natural evolution in terms of distributive workforce,” said an Ohio-based multinational manufacturer of differentiated sensors and advanced fluid management components. “I think that is going to lead to a different way of working.”
Many Rhode Island manufacturers have echoed this theme in conversations with Polaris MEP.
Among the reported changes that may continue to reshape their operations after the public health crisis abates are:
An openness to collaborative tools that enable more flexible work schedules for employees and minimize the need for face-to-face interactions.
Some acknowledged that they embraced the current work-from-home realities reluctantly, but they have found the arrangements to be productive and efficient, encouraging fewer and shorter meetings and allowing a heightened focus free from typical office distractions.
A reflection on company culture.
The pandemic has put the health and well-being of the workforce front and center. Yet, detailed efforts to keep workplaces safe and production lines operating are complicated by the fact that workers spend much more of their time away from work than on the job.
These manufacturing leaders say they have been much more proactive in encouraging workers to self-quarantine and take extra time if they don’t feel comfortable returning to work. They have also been more accommodating of workers facing unexpected childcare and caregiving demands.
To counter the isolation among employees working from home and the separation among “essential” workers continuing on as usual, one manufacturing leader reported that his company was working to facilitate virtual social events such as coffee chats, jam sessions and gardening clubs. Workers have appreciated the efforts, which have made them feel like they are standing “shoulder to shoulder” in the fight to carry on in the midst of public health and economic challenges.
Infection spread and shutdown mandates have disrupted production processes. Demand for personal protective and medical equipment, as well as signage and packaging materials, in the wake of the virus gave some the opportunity to pivot into unexpected markets.
These manufacturers say that the past months made them value the strength of their supply chains and regard their suppliers as collaborators and operational assets.
Leaders know the importance of learning lessons from times when they are tested. These manufacturers point to the pain of the Great Recession as providing process improvements, lean operations and resilience that have helped them withstand the current twin public health and economic difficulties. Encouraging a role for the MEP National NetworkTM in helping them embrace the transformation thrust on them, manufacturing leaders are confident that they and U.S. manufacturing as a whole will emerge stronger.
We’re in This Together
We can do this. American manufacturing has made it through hard times before and will adapt and thrive again. Likely with more video calls, but how we’re connected doesn’t seem to matter. We’re still all in this together.
Although if we’re talking about adaptations that previously belonged to the realm of science fiction I’d personally hoped to see happen most, I’d prefer the flying part.