Manufacturing: coronavirus puts spotlight on what can be done remotely

The coronavirus outbreak is taking a heavy toll on businesses in all industries, with offices around the world temporarily closing to help stop the spread of the disease.

But many industries -- including manufacturing -- cannot easily switch to home-based working.

In the United States, some automakers have told non-factory employees to work remotely while keeping production going, The Verge reports.

Ford is among those that have taken this twin-track approach, instructing its employees to work remotely until further notice -- "except those in business-critical roles that cannot be done away from Ford facilities".

In Europe, Ford has temporarily suspended vehicle and engine production at its manufacturing sites.

New technologies enable factories to be operated with much less human intervention and it's thought the current crisis could accelerate the transition to Industry 4.0.

According to a new white paper from ABI Research, the COVID-19 pandemic will force companies to "radically rethink how they operate and embrace technological investment".

"To effect change, there must be a stimulation of a magnitude that means companies cannot do anything but make bold decisions to survive. COVID-19 is that magnitude," explained Stuart Carlaw, chief research officer at ABI Research.

Such bold decisions and technological investments could lead to a more concerted and widespread move to lights-out manufacturing; increased use of autonomous materials handling and goods vehicles; and a more integrated, diverse and coordinated supply chain.

However, Carlaw warned of "serious short-term implications" before this potential long-term impact emerges.

"Contractions in consumer spending, disruptions to supply chains, and reduced availability of components will create a rough sea for all boats," he said. "In the short term, there will be a retrenchment in outlooks [and] a reduced investment in modernisation, as survival instincts trump the drive to prosperity."

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