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The coronavirus crisis is reshaping not only social norms, but how businesses operate. In particular, businesses in which employees must work closely together to perform their jobs. As businesses struggle to follow social distancing practices in industries not well suited for it, is it time for manufacturing to re-evaluate the need for AI and automation in their business?
To understand how prolific the coronavirus is, consider that on March 26th, there was one Smithfield Foods worker who tested positive for COVID-19 and by the end of April the number had risen to at least 800. Originally Smithfield had no intention of closing the plant, then they announced a 14-day closing, and on April 12th, Smithfield Foods decided to close their Sioux Falls, SD plant indefinitely due to COVID-19.
Manufacturers Face a Paradigm Shift
Part of the reason for the anxiety in the business community is due to COVID-19 being spread by proximity and many businesses require their employees work close to each other to perform their duties. As such, these manufacturers are facing the possibility they may not be able to comply with the need for social distancing and continue to operate their business efficiently, or even at all.
While remote work has proven to be an effective tactic to reduce the spread of the virus, the crisis has also highlighted how many businesses can’t operate remotely and are dependent upon a physical workforce. What makes this issue even more pressing is that many of these businesses are considered essential businesses. Essential businesses are businesses which need to stay open in order for society and the economy to have some semblance of normalcy and stability.
As stay at home orders continue throughout the country, many businesses’ very survival is in question. Not just during this crisis, but after as well. The reality is that once the crisis has subsided and the country fully ‘opens up’, there will be a need for permanent changes in how many businesses operate and organize the work space for their workers. Changes will be needed to prevent or at least reduce the chance of flare-ups going forward.
While social distancing is one of the most effective methods to reduce the spread of the virus, many businesses simply can’t enact the practice. The question is if a business can't have as many people in the same workspace, but also need a certain number of workers to remain productive, how do they navigate these competing goals? The logical place to turn in such a situation is to technology.
In a true catch-22 dilemma, businesses face the choice of reducing their staff to keep them safe, or retaining their full staff without enacting social distancing and ending up closing the business as their workforce becomes ill. With this in mind, many businesses are beginning to wonder whether or not COVID-19 will accelerate AI's replacement of humans as a factor of production and are considering investing in the technology.
When we think about how technology affects productivity, we can examine the various industrial revolutions in history and see how they reshaped businesses. Whether it’s agrarian, industrial, technological, or currently the digital and virtual revolution also known as industry 4.0; the ultimate result was fewer workers were needed to perform a service than was needed prior to the introduction of the new technology. The new technology currently gaining momentum is artificial intelligence, which is linked to the industrial internet of things (IIoT), considered to be the future of manufacturing.
Some ways technology can benefit social distancing efforts:
Viruses aren’t only the bane of a human workforce, but of technology as well. As we often note, it doesn't take much for your business to be taken offline, perhaps permanently; due to a malware or ransomware attack. If your business is the victim of a cyberattack and you don’t have a mitigation plan in place, chances are your business will close within six months.
Once your business embraces technology, it can’t do it in half-measures. It must embrace it fully, including developing methods to protect it. These methods must include training your staff to recognize threats, which should be a priority, having robust cybersecurity protection in place and a BDR (backup and data recovery) solution to ensure you're able to get up and running quickly in case disaster strikes.
Current affairs have thrust the need for automation into top of mind for many businesses, as a plan to help them survive the current crisis and beyond. The interest in Artificial Intelligence in manufacturing is only going to increase, as businesses struggle to balance their staffing needs with best practices in regard to their teams’ safety. If you’re not sure how AI and IIoT fit into your business, you can talk to us! KT Connections’ team of consultants and technicians are familiar with modern technologies - and can develop an effective plan for your business.